Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 12 January 2007
Source Westlake Entertainment DVD
She came from a world of sensible choices. Nothing in her life had prepared her for the loud confusion of her unexpected present…
For the first few minutes of director Dan Ireland’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, we know the character of Sarah Palfrey only by her voice. Seated in the back of a London taxicab, we’re privy to her discussion with the driver; odd, fleeting glimpses of her elegant dress and luggage mark her arrival, but never a shot of her face. It’s as though she’s a figment, a voice either real or imagined. For Sarah Palfrey, this is a perfect introduction, as she is now destined for a dubious existence in society. A widow, she has decided to stay in the Claremont, a low-rent London retirement complex, as to not burden her daughter; she hopes to attend the theatre, delve into tomes of poetry, and become a significant member of social circles. Instead, living in a small room behind the Claremont’s unassuming façade, she will become a secondary presence.
To all outward appearances, the Claremont is a living mortuary. Populated by a scant showing of elderly men and women – and, in one instance, a mother and her theatergoing son – the Claremont feels like the archetypical transition into death, masquerading in this instance as a low-rent hotel. The residents exist in their own world, one of deafening solitude interrupted ever-so rarely by a telephone call. When Sarah Palfrey sits down to breakfast for the first time, she finds herself alone, designated her own table for the remainder of her stay; around her, the other residents sip soup, read magazines, and stare into old memories like frail apparitions.
Unbeknownst to Sarah Palfrey, these residents have created their own culture. Accompanied by a philosophy of ever deepening pessimism that seems to act as both a comfort and resignation, they exist beneath the slow tides of the outside world. Take, for instance, the first interaction between Sarah and one of the Claremont’s elder residents, a sardonic and twice-widowed woman named Elvira Arbuthnot:
ELVIRA ARBUTHNOT: I’m on my way to the television room. It takes me a long time to get there, so I leave a bit before everyone else. We take our coffee there and watch the latest serial on the tele. I’d be glad if you’d joined me, if you’re not faint of heart.
SARAH PALFREY: Well, what on earth do you watch? One of those gruesome American things?
ELVIRA ARBUTHNOT: Yes. Sex and the City. I watch it in weekly doses, like a medicine. It makes me feel better knowing I’m not going to be around much longer.
Likewise, the staff – a young and indifferent manager, an equally young and indifferent server, and an elderly doorman with a cutting wit – are inconsistent statues that seem imprisoned. They rarely smile, talk in a fatigued monotone, and seem disinterested in providing assistance.
As with many other times in her life, she questioned how the contents of her letter would be interpreted. Would she appear needy, or lonely? Or both?
During a small excursion one afternoon to deliver a concerned letter to her daughter and pick up a library book for Mrs. Arbuthnot – Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Sarah becomes unsettled by an approaching storm; quickening her pace, she becomes dizzy and falls outside the apartment of Ludovic Meyer, a man one-forth her age who rushes to her aid. Taking her inside, they introduce themselves and make small talk as her scraped knee heals and tea brews; slowly, it becomes apparent that both suffer the same problem: deliberately or not, they have become separated from modern society and are now alone, seemingly forgotten.
It also becomes apparent that these two souls, though separated by age, have been crafted as complementary to one another. (A clever use of props reinforces this notion, as Sarah drinks tea from a cup marked “KISS KISS,” while Ludovic’s cup says “BANG BANG.”) Ludovic Meyer, nicknamed “Ludo,” is a struggling writer and street performer, a lover of poetry, who substitutes quasi-literary observations as casual dialogue, something that constantly throws Sarah off. Similarly, Sarah’s habit of falling back into pleasant recollections of her late husband Arthur, leaves Ludo smiling but without any reply. He has no memories of his own—he cannot possibly understand what it means to have had decades of love severed suddenly and permanently, to lose something once so present and overwhelming. After Rosie, an old girlfriend, confronts Ludo in the park, Sarah brings up the subject of relationships:
SARAH: I was wondering why a young man with so many qualities didn’t have a girlfriend, or a wife.
LUDO: My qualities are more honeymoon than mortgage.
LUDO: I just mean I’m not very successful in the relationship department.
As other critics have noted, the relationship between Sarah and Ludo becomes peculiar almost instantly. While she’s busy passing him off as her grandson to the other residents of the Claremont – “The resemblance is uncanny,” Sarah is told the first time Ludo stops by – he’s also passing Sarah off as his British-speaking American grandmother, much to the chagrin of Rosie. “When I first saw you two from a distance, I thought, Shit, Ludo’s entered a new stage—Harold and Maude, if you know what I mean,” she says to Ludo in the park; he rebuffs her, but other scenes glow with hints of underlying intimacy: Ludo gently blowing on Sarah’s bare leg, hoping to soothe her bruise; Ludo serenading Sarah with “For All We Know” on his guitar. There’s also a subtle but present sensation that Sarah and Ludo, at least initially, are using one another, Sarah to retain her pride and Ludo to refine his creativity. He begins writing prose based on Sarah’s time at the Claremont, the first piece entitled “We’re Not Allowed to Die Here.” It soon becomes apparent, however, that their relationship has allowed the world around them to flourish. The residents of the Claremont become jovial, more eager to spend time with one another away from the dismal dinner tables and hypnotic “tele”; Sarah finds beauty and life in retirement, expanding her interests to include theatre and the poetry of William Blake; and Ludo becomes involved with a new girl, whom he meets over a DVD of David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
While the script by Ruth Sacks plods along at times, stumbling slightly in the last half-hour after Sarah falls outside the Claremont and is admitted to the hospital – yet another bare, confining room to waste away in – the dialogue is incredibly sharp throughout. Peppered with brief moments of whimsy – a drunken Claremont resident proposing marriage to Sarah, a collection of older women dancing an impromptu cabaret in the Claremont restaurant – Ireland’s film is unbelievably fresh, something easily and rightfully attributable to the cast. Anna Massey as Elvira Arbuthnot is wickedly and unforgettably charming – a woman who is both a sister and friend to Sarah Palfrey, and a voice of reason to all those disenchanted by the expected indolence of old age – while Robert Lang’s smitten Mr. Osborn is an undeniable gentleman, even as his proposal to Sarah is politely turned down. Rupert Friend as Ludo reeks of innocence – the resemblance to Orlando Bloom is at times uncanny – while Clare Higgins as his mother weaves an air of sad, insightful retrospection.
But the star of Ireland’s film is, without a doubt, Joan Plowright. As the genteel Mrs. Palfry, Plowright exudes the kind, intuitive spirit found in her more famous characters, from Dorothy in A Place for Annie to Sophie in I Am David and even Mrs. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. She’s an actress I’ve respected for years; even as her roles diverged into the bizarre – in Bringin’ Down the House, she played a philanthropic dog-owner who gets stoned and dances on a bar – I’ve always found her to be the most consistent and dignified of actresses. With Sarah Palfrey, her first leading role in years, Plowright once again confirms her place among the legends, and she does so with quiet, faultless majesty.