The wittiest–and most honest–moment in “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” comes when Rupert Friend, playing Ludovic Meyer, a struggling young writer who’s befriended the titular woman (Joan Plowright), an elderly widow, remarks that the two of them seem to be trapped in a Terence Rattigan play. He makes the comment as they come under the scrutiny of the other guests in the dining room of a residential hotel catering to older residents that Mrs. Palfrey’s recently taken a room in; she’s let it about that the young man is her grandson, who’s actually failed to visit her since she arrived. As the slick-tongued and knowledgeable Meyer says, the scene is quite reminiscent of Rattigan’s work, particularly “Separate Tables”–especially since the assortment of other elderly patrons includes virtually all the stereotypes featured in that play. (One of them is even named–inevitably–Arbuthnot! Is there any moniker more common in Agatha Christie stories?)
Unfortunately, neither Ruth Sacks’s script (based on a novel by Elizabeth Taylor–no relation to the actress, of course) nor Dan Ireland’s direction, nor the cast, takes the similarity as a springboard for parody. To the contrary, they treat the tale of sweet inter-generational friendship with a seriousness it really doesn’t deserve. Audiences susceptible to this sort of sweet Hallmark Hall of Fame sentimentality will be taken by the movie. Everyone else will probably find it just too manipulative for words.
Of course, Plowright is so skilled at this sort of lovably daffy stuff that she makes it almost palatable. She manages the right mixture of humor and poignance in the opening scenes as she settles into her spartan room at the run-down Claremont and makes the acquaintance of the place’s oddball collection of regulars (played by Anna Massey, Robert Lang, Marcia Warren and Millicent Martin). Then she has a cute meeting with Ludovic, who turns out to be an extraordinarily helpful and considerate sort, and the two quickly become fast friends, with the young man agreeing, as already noted, to impersonate her grandson. What follows is a series of cute episodes–Mrs. Palfrey’s embarrassing wooing by elderly Mr. Osborne (Lang), the abrupt appearance of her actual grandson (Lorcan O’Toole), a romance between Ludovic and a charming young woman (Zoe Tapper) that’s instigated when Palfrey suggests that he watch her favorite film, “Brief Encounter” and he goes to the video store to rent a copy and accidentally meets her in line. There are also tearful and crowd-pleasing moments of other sorts, the most predictable being the sudden illness of one resident and the oddest being an impromptu musical number in which the oldsters strut their stuff. (The latter is certain to draw a ripple of laughter from viewers of similar ages.) And, of course, there’s a bittersweet finale that shows the depth of the affection between Mrs. Palfrey and Meyer and proves where real family feeling lies.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this sort of calculated combination of geezer crowd-pleaser and tearjerker, particularly when it serves to provide a pro like Plowright with a showy role. And she certainly milks it for all it’s worth, holding back where a lesser actress might have gone way over the top. Her elderly compatriots aren’t nearly as subtle (except for Massey, who plays the brittle card with aplomb), but they’re supposed to be broad stereotypes, after all, and if young Friend is irritatingly facile of tongue, that’s the fault not so much of his performance (though it is a trifle busy) as much as the script, which makes him rather a literary conceit in every possible sense of the phrase. The picture was obviously made on a very limited budget, and the camerawork of Claudio Rocha is more utilitarian than elegant, but Stephen Barton has contributed a lush score that partially makes up for the visual simplicity.
All of which gives a telefilm quality to “Mrs, Palfrey at the Claremont” that suggests it would be more at home on the small screen than in theatres. But rest assured it won’t be long before it moves out of the multiplex and takes up residence in the video store.