"Duller than spending two hours in a retirement hotel"
I know the kind of review that I am supposed to write about the new British import “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.” I am supposed to mention the fact that it is a small and quiet film that is daring to come out at the same time as “Mission: Impossible III.” I am supposed to talk about how a quiet, character-driven piece like this is such a relief in comparison to the big-budget behemoth. I am supposed to mention how delightful Joan Plowright is in the central role and what a shame it is that an actress of her age and bearing is inevitably shunted to the side in the American film industry to make for the couch-and-shark jumping antics of Tom Cruise. Many people will write exactly that kind of review but I won’t be one of them because of the simple and inescapable fact that the movie is, in its own quiet and low-key manner, just as smug and predictable as “Mission: Impossible III” and just as easy to dismiss.Plowright plays Mrs. Palfrey, a elderly widow who decides to move to a run-down retirement hotel in the heart of London in order to be near her grandson, Desmond. Unfortunately, after boasting to her fellow residents that he will be visiting soon, the rotter never shows up or even bothers to call. One day, while walking home from the library (carrying a not-at-all symbolic copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”), she stumbles on the sidewalk and is rescued by struggling young writer Ludo (Rupert Friend). In gratitude, she asks him to come to the hotel for dinner and makes one simple request–could he possibly claim to be Desmond. Apparently delighted with the opportunity to become involved in a hideous web of lies at the request of someone he has just met, Ludo agrees and this begins a genuine friendship between the two that unfolds in achingly predictable ways–the real Desmond makes an unexpected appearance at the hotel–before the equally predictable tear-jerking conclusion.
As a vehicle for Plowright, the film is adequate–she is the best thing in the film even though this is a role she could play in her sleep. However, it seems as if director Dan Ireland assumed that viewers would be so enchanted with her performance that they wouldn’t notice that every other element was as ratty and substandard as the hotel where most of the action takes place. Most of the other performances are uninspired, the visual style is frankly ugly and the whole enterprise is so stale and dated that it still thinks that just the mention of old ladies watching “Sex in the City” is guffaw-worthy. A more pressing problem is that while Friend is amiable enough as Ludo, he is simply outclassed in virtually every scene by Plowright and what should have been a two-character piece is basically transformed into a one-woman show–since their relationship is never especially convincing, the would-be heart-rending finale comes up short because it is trying to jerk tears that it frankly hasn’t earned.The one fresh element in “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” is a small performance from Zoe Tapper as the young woman who becomes Ludo’s girlfriend after they both try to rent the only copy of “Brief Encounter” (another not-at-all symbolic title) at the local video store. She isn’t in it that much and doesn’t really have much to do but she does bring an interesting presence to the otherwise familiar proceedings that comes like a breath of fresh air. With her combination of charm, good looks and one of the coolest names in recent memory, I can only hope that she will one day find better things to do on-screen than play the third banana in a film that hardly has enough material for the first two.