“Trapped in a Terrence Ratting ‘play” is how Ludovic Meyer(Rupert Friend), a handsome, courtly 26-year-old aspiring writer describes his
impressions when dining with the much older title character of “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” in her shabby hotel dining room.
This stiff-upper-lip weepie, directed by Dan Ireland (“The Whole Wide World”), belongs to the same genre as ‘Ladies in Lavender’ the
scenery-chewing duet for Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith that opened earlier this year. In that movie, two older women fluttered around a pretty young man; here there is only one older woman, and the time is the present.
The unabashedly sentimental film is a juicy morsel for the great British actress Dame Joan Plowright, who endows Mrs.
Palfrey with stoic charm and decency. A 70-something widow striking out on her own after the death of her beloved husband, she would rather stay at the Claremont, a residential hotel in London, and taste her newfound independence than go live with her daughter.
Mrs. Palfrey and her young man meet by chance when she falls on the street in front of his house.
After helping her to her feet, he invites her inside, dresses her leg wound and serves tea. Ludovic, a huge disappointment to
his mother, plays guitar, ekes out a living busking on the Underground and writes on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. Mr. Friend, who plays Mr. Wickham in the new ‘Pride&Prejudice’ plays Ludovic as a model of 50′s decorum but with a 60′s haircut.
The Rattigan play to which Ludovic refers is ‘Separate Tables’ and the scenes set in the Claremont dining room where Mrs. Palfrey invites him for dinner are ur-Rattigan in their air of embattled gentility. The oddly old-fashioned characters, who might have been extracted from a game of Clue, epitomize a particular breed of British eccentric. Typical is tart-tongued Mrs. Arbuthnot (the wonderful Anna Massey), the dining room’s self-appointed matron and the movie’s answer to Dame Wendy Hiller. “Nobody dies here!” she snaps, as though that reassuring pronouncement were written in the stars.
But the Claremont isn’t the kind of place to inspire hope. As Mrs. Palfrey gazes for the first time around her cramped room with its patterned rug and wallpaper, her response is a muttered “Oh, dear.” The food in the dining room is just as uninspiring.
Much of the movie revolves around a harmless deception. Mrs. Palfrey leads her fellow residents to believe Ludovic is her grandson, since the real one hasn’t visited and they have begun to think he is imaginary. The sudden belated appearance of the actual grandson (Lorcan O’Toole) occasions further confusion and deception.
“Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” should be set in the 1950′s, but it’s not. With a screenplay by Ruth Sacks, who adapted the novel – which was set in the 50′s - by the British writer Elizabeth Taylor, the film strains to reconcile the moods and rhythms of two decades located half a century apart. In the production notes Mr. Ireland explains that the film’s minuscule budget made
it impossible to recreate London in the 50′s, so the story was updated to now.
Anachronisms abound. The most glaring is the prominence of the movie ‘Brief Encounter’ in the characters’ lives. If it’s appropriate that the 1945 film be Mrs. Palfrey’s all-time favorite, the notion that it would obsess a contemporary woman in her 20′s is far-fetched to say the least. But when Ludovic, in search of “Brief Encounter,” meets his future sweetheart, Gwendolyn (Zoe Tapper), that’s the movie she is planning to rent for the umpteenth time. Oh, please!