By Betsy Sherman
As a film about a brief, cross-generational friendship, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (now playing at the Kendall Square Cinema) doesn’t have the pop-culture cachet of Lost in Translation or Harold and Maude. It’s content to nestle into an ambiguously etched contemporary London in which people quote Wordsworth and make a fuss about the old black-and-white melodrama Brief Encounter.
This aura of suspended time perfectly suits the film’s main characters, an elderly widow who knows who she is but not where she’s going, and a young male writer who idealizes “the olden time” in order to avoid commitment to the present.
Their intimate story was adapted from a novel by the late English writer Elizabeth Taylor by screenwriter Ruth Sacks and American director Dan Ireland. If Ireland sometimes errs by laying on the schmaltz, he displays great wisdom in the casting and direction of lead actors Joan Plowright, as Mrs. Palfrey, and Rupert Friend, as her young chum Ludovic Meyer. It’s a treat to see the warm and wonderful Plowright, who is usually relegated to colorful supporting roles, in almost every scene in the movie. The film gives rare attention to, and insight into, an elderly woman character. Plowright, with her mellifluous, now sometimes quavery, voice, and her strongly outlined facial features, is a pleasure to watch as Mrs. Palfrey embarks on her modest journey of self-discovery.
It’s tempting to first state what Mrs. Palfrey is not: she’s not neurotic, eccentric, or stricken with some fatal disease. She’s an educated woman who has lived a satisfying life as a wife, mother, and grandmother, but is eager to experience independence in her final years. Even in the process of establishing that independence, she still identifies herself as “Mrs. Arthur Palfrey.” It’s well into the picture when we discover her first name is Sarah.
Her belongings neatly packed into several suitcases, Mrs. Palfrey checks into a residential hotel that she once saw an ad for: The Claremont, in London’s Lancaster Gate. The place has seen better days – decades ago. Once she’s installed in her tiny room, Mrs. Palfrey dresses for dinner (“First impressions, as Mama used to say”), and hopes for a bit of glamour in the dining room. There’s neither glamour nor the fine cuisine promised in the ad. An assortment of withered elders sit silently at separate tables, wincing as they partake of the awful food and wine. Mrs. Palfrey’s new neighbors are played by familiar faces from British showbiz, including Millicent Martin (Daphne’s mum on Frasier), Georgina Hale (Alma in Ken Russell’s Mahler), and Anna Massey (the girl from the 1960 classic Peeping Tom).
The first of these gargoyles to speak to Mrs. Palfrey is the assertive Mrs. Arbuthnot (Massey, in a great performance of bone-dry wit). She informs her that the women are about to retire to the TV room to watch Sex and the City (thank goodness Mrs. Palfrey declines and we’re spared that scene).
Mrs. Palfrey sticks it out at the Claremont, as if undergoing a stoic trial. The widow meets the 26-year-old Ludo after she trips and falls outside the basement apartment where he’s housesitting. He rushes to her rescue, patches up her knee, and makes her a cup of tea. The contrivance that really gets their friendship going is that the Claremont folks, finding out that Mrs. Palfrey is going to have a guest over for dinner, assume it’s her elusive grandson, Desmond. She asks Ludo to pretend he’s Desmond, and he obliges (and takes to calling Mrs. Palfrey “Sa-sa”). Mrs. Palfrey’s guilt over the lie is mitigated by the delicious sense of complicity that she and Ludo now share.
The almost surreal life at the Claremont stimulates the unpublished writer’s creative juices, as do Mrs. Palfrey’s reminiscences about her blissful marriage. The handsome Rupert Friend, who played caddish Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, makes us believe that Ludo is frustrated by the superficial nature of his relationships and troubled by doubts. He begins to confide in Mrs. Palfrey, and she, like a good grandmother, tries to hold up a mirror that reflects his good qualities back at him.
That’s about it for breadth of narrative. There are side stories in which an old Claremont gent becomes infatuated with Mrs. Palfrey, and where a romantic possibility opens up for Ludo (this is where Brief Encounter figures in). But it’s depth of feeling, not cleverness of plot, that makes Mrs. Palfrey work.
Unfortunately, the viewer has to fight against a few poor decisions on Ireland’s part. The wall-to-wall soundtrack keeps prompting us what to feel, and is often annoyingly whimsical (somebody shoot the clarinet player!). Some of the humor is stale (old people flustered by answering machines) or cornball (an impromptu song and dance by Martin).
But it’s worth soldiering through the flat and cutesy moments. The film’s high spots include Mrs. Palfrey’s defense of Ludo to his overly critical mother (Clare Higgins is given a lot to accomplish in her one scene), and “Sa-sa’s” adoring greeting to Ludo, during a time when she’s feeling especially frail. She calls him “Ludovic Meyer, in charge of cheerfulness.” It may not sound like much, but in context, it’s a great honor.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont isn’t as triumphant as Ireland’s mismatched romance The Whole Wide World, which paired Vincent D’Onofrio with the then-unknown Renee Zellweger. But it’s a stroll off the beaten path, and it gives Plowright a starring role. The movie is dedicated to “our mothers and grandmothers,” and illustrates how it sometimes takes a stranger to give them the credit they deserve.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.