Sarah Palfrey is an elderly widow estranged from her daughter and grandson. She moves into a retirement hotel in London that defines the concept of “genteel shabby.” One day, returning from the library, she falls outside of the basement flat occupied by one Ludovic Meyer, a free-spirited writer who is young enough to her grandson. We know that Ludovic is a free-spirit because of his rock star long hair, his fashionably torn clothing, the kangaroo-bouncy way he hops through conversations, and his preference for working on an old-fashioned typewriter. Despite the vast differences in age and life experiences, this unlikely duo become dear friends. This results in shared confidences, day trips and a strong bond that defies time and logic.
This, in the proverbial nutshell, is “Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont.” Based on the 1971 novel of the same name by Elizabeth Taylor (the famous English writer, not the actress), the film actually feels more like a “Harold and Maude” as reinterpreted by “Masterpiece Theatre.” It is a proper film that politely tugs the heartstrings on matters ranging from love, loneliness, art, aging, life and death. Perhaps it lacks irony, depth or bite, though most likely it was never intended to have any of those nihilistic attributes.
What the film does possess, to its eternal favor, is Joan Plowright as Mrs. Palfrey. This glorious actress can command any scene with a mere arch of the eyebrow, shrug of the shoulder and clearing of her throat. Even when the material is weak to the point of fraying, Plowright is able to give it more value than it deserves with her expert line readings and subtle body language. She is a year’s worth acting lessons rolled into one performance.
Newcomer Rupert Friend as Ludovic is not in her league, and his attempt to play Ludovic alternates between sticky cute antics and male model catwalk posing (translated: he looks great but he’s not ready to be called an actor). Old reliables of British cinema including Anna Massey, Millicent Martin and Georgina Hale add tonic to the mix in throwaway supporting roles. This second-level ensemble seems to have a contest to determine who is the hammiest of the bunch. Watching these old pros elbow their way into the spotlight is the film’s finest surprise, but watching Plowright out-act them all is the ultimate joy.