Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont

on November 25, 2005 by Sheri Linden
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It's a shame that stage great Joan Plowright's most substantial screen role in decades is in the service of this tedious heart-tugger, the tale of an unlikely friendship between a widowed grandmother and a young aspiring writer. Adapting the novel by prolific English author Elizabeth Taylor, screenwriter Ruth Sacks and director Dan Ireland create a few sweet and poignant moments, but the proceedings feel schematic rather than involving. And while Plowright and her up-and-comer leading man, Rupert Friend, deliver the required tender yet chaste chemistry, the story too often falls flat in its eagerness to be touching.

As the film begins, Plowright's elegant title character moves into the faded glory of the Claremont, a hotel in London's Lancaster Gate where a handful of elderly Brits reside year-round. Leaving her daughter's Scotland home, Mrs. Palfrey is seeking the independence and solitude her life as wife and mother has never quite allowed. She also hopes to spend time with her 26-year-old grandson, Desmond (the brief screen debut of Peter O'Toole's son Lorcan O'Toole). But when her calls to him go unanswered and a 26-year-old stranger enters her life, Mrs. Palfrey indulges in a charade that deepens into true friendship.

The nosy habitu├ęs of the Claremont's dining room have heard so much about Desmond that when Mrs. Palfrey's good-looking acquaintance Ludovic Meyer (Friend) shows up for dinner, they assume he's her grandson. She doesn't disabuse them of the mistake, and kind, sensitive Ludo, who never knew his grandmother, is happy to play along. Away from the prying eyes of the Claremont, the longhaired scribe and the dignified older woman share home-cooked meals and walks in the park, discussing Wordsworth and Blake, love and family. He takes an avid interest in her memories, which in turn feed his creativity. The present-day tale is rife with nostalgia, from its overt nods to "Brief Encounter" to the Remington manual on which Ludo taps out his inspiration.

Plowright and Friend ("Pride & Prejudice," "The Libertine") rise above the plodding narrative to convey a trans-generation connection between two romantic souls. Among the gallery of estimable British vets who deliver somewhat insistently flavorful turns as Claremont residents are Anna Massey and Robert Lang, in his last screen role, as a tippler who's smitten with Mrs. Palfrey. But as with his clunky "Passionada," Ireland orchestrates interactions in a way that feels strained and obvious. The most powerful moment in the film is the wordless image of Mrs. Palfrey walking through falling leaves. Above all, the film celebrates Plowright's handsome face, her character's quiet dignity and emotional reserve. Starring Joan Plowright, Rupert Friend, Zoe Tapper, Anna Massey, Robert Lang, Marcia Warren, Georgina Hale and Lorcan O'Toole. Directed by Dan Ireland. Written by Ruth Sacks. Produced by Lee Caplin, Zachary Matz and Carl Colpaert. A Cineville release. Comedy/Drama. Unrated. Running time: 108 min

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