Photograph by Jerome Prebois
Boho Buddies: Joan Plowright finds an unexpected pal in young writer Rupert Friend in 'Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.'
Ladies in Retirement
Joan Plowright enjoys a late-season spring friendship in 'Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont'
By Richard von Busack
JOAN PLOWRIGHT plays the title character in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, a woman who "came from a world of sensible choices." Nearing the end of her life, she leaves her home and settles into the Claremont Hotel in Lancaster Gate, London W2, to wait for what old people eventually wait for. She waits in this hotel of incomparable stodginess and silence, with its cruel vertiginous stairway leading up to the undersized and cold bedroom. Mrs. Palfrey is a relic unvisited even by her grandson who—irony—is an archivist, who ought to be interested in something so ancient and misplaced. The interiors of Mrs. Palfrey's stay are well-observed. We can almost taste the dinnertime wine, of a quality that would make a goat wince. The bowls of tepid soup are served by an atrociously mannered waitress Violet (Emma Pike), whose demeanor isn't improved by Mrs. Palfrey's urging her to be more demure. And then there is the genteel—no—mind-unhinging quiet of the dining room and the unseen telly room, where the senior citizens totter in to mutually deplore the re-re-reruns of Sex and the City.
One day, Mrs. Palfrey fetches a library copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover as a favor for her raucous friend Mrs. Arbuthnot (Anna Massey). On the way back, she makes the acquaintance of a young post-hippie named Ludovic (the Orlando Bloomish Rupert Friend), who has straight black brows, hair down to his neck and a shirt open to the hairless breastbone. He is a free-souled writer who lives in a mildewy basement and busks in the subways for spare change. A friendship between mild bohemians follows. Liberated, for a time, from the grip of the Claremont, Mrs. Palfrey has a chance to discuss Wordsworth and William Blake.
This is a movie in which the phrase "Harold and Maude" should not have been uttered and somehow was. Plowright, nearing 80, brings all her talents as a thespian to bear in this late-season role; she is an expert at the subtle art of wistfulness and can register several layers of disdain all at once. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is directed by Dan Ireland, who also directed The Whole Wide World, a memorable biopic of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. Ireland, adapting a novel by Elizabeth Taylor, sets the story in the present. The novel was published in the early 1970s, when London was especially down in the mouth. The first matter that disturbs the viewer is the thought of how much the city has changed since then. Tides of money and renovation have washed over the good London neighborhoods. In real life, business tourists should pack the Claremont, and the tone would change; Fawlty Towers would have made them self-conscious about trying to be swank, and Keeping Up Appearances would make Mrs. Palfrey nervous about sounding like Hyacinth Bucket. PBS was on my mind watching this, because it seems the natural destination of this movie; there, the tendency of the guests to become jolly or malign stereotypes and the idea of this downbeat story as a celebration of life would fit right in with the flaunted bric-a-brac on Antiques Roadshow and the endless Ulysses-like wanderings of Rick Steves.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (Unrated; 108 min.), directed by Dan Ireland, written by Ruth Sacks, based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor, photographed by Claudio Rocha and starring Joan Plowright, opens Sept. 8.
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