London Film Festival 2014 Day 6: 'Radiator' and 'My Old Lady'

Two films focused on ageing characters yield contrasting results. Tom Browne’s Radiator is an exquisite, intimate family portrait, but Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady feels entirely fake.

Radiator takes place in a run-down, rubbish-filled, rodent-ridden Cumbrian cottage where Maria (Gemma Jones) and Leonard (Richard Johnson), an elderly married couple, reside. Leonard is ailing and bed-ridden, and Maria takes care of him, patiently attending to his demands and often irascible moods.

Following a phone-call from his mother that’s a tentatively-phrased cry for help, the couple’s son Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira) comes to the cottage to be of assistance. “You come here once every few months. That’s not up to snuff,” Daniel is reprimanded by a concerned neighbour of the pair. But as he settles into the cottage, finding himself a sometimes useful but equally sometimes unwelcome presence within the weird, makeshift routine that his parents have devised for themselves, a picture gradually builds of the past hurts that have affected Daniel’s feelings about his folks.

Commencing with a phone-call, concluding with a poem, Tom Browne’s debut film is an absolutely superb piece of work. (And what it’s doing in the Festival’s “Love” Gala rather than the “First Feature Competition”, which it fully deserves to win, is anybody’s guess.) In its subtlety, gracefulness, compassion, and the intelligence of its presentation of a long marriage undergoing the strain of one partner’s illness and decline, the film is the closest that British cinema has come to getting near the greatness of Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012).

Full of hushed spaces and poignant pauses that only heighten the impact of Radiator's moments of emotional intensity, Browne’s film draws you into intimacy with its three protagonists via a series of spare yet richly textured scenes that are by turns funny and painful, and always, always relatable. (As a portrait of an ageing marriage, the film makes Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) look like a big, broad-brush cartoon.) Indeed, the film touches so many raw nerves that, recalling a scene the morning after seeing the picture, I found myself moved to tears again.

The performances are beyond praise. Jones and Johnson go so deeply into their roles that every glance, every gesture, every hurtful remark or recalled joke (including the one that gives the film its title), bespeaks a shared history. Johnson’s portrayal of the physical indignities Leonard endures is raspingly poignant, and Jones -- with her radiant smiles, social graciousness and suggestions of secret sorrows -- brilliantly communicates the compromises that Maria as made in her life, especially in the wordless scenes that present the character alone. Cerqueira (who collaborated on the screenplay with Browne) is a strong, empathetic presence too, and touchingly conveys Daniel’s loneliness and reticence.

Filmed in the house of the director’s parents, the movie’s use of space is exemplary, with scenes set in the cramped and cluttered cottage juxtaposed with lovely landscape shots, the gorgeous setting is expressively rather than ostentatiously used. Heartfelt and apparently deeply personal, Radiator is a marvel: a beautiful family portrait that, though modest in its scope, casts a spell that lingers for a long time.

Maggie Smith in My Old Lady (2014)

Alas, the same can’t be said for My Old Lady, the new film by Israel Horovitz. If every moment in Radiator rings true, then there’s scarcely an episode or an encounter in this concoction that doesn’t feel fake. Adapted by Horovitz from his 2002 play, the film retains the clunky, over-emphatic quality that can be typical of weaker works for the stage, no matter how hard the writer-director tries to “open up” the proceedings by having the protagonists venture out onto the photogenic Paris streets in between contrived confrontation-heavy set-pieces.

The plot centres around a property that two characters have a claim to. When Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his-luck American writer, arrives in the City of Light, it’s with the intention of selling the apartment that he’s inherited from his deceased father. But he hasn’t banked on finding the place occupied by one Madame Girard (Maggie Smith), who has the right to live in it under the French “viager” system. And Mathias certainly hasn’t banked (although the audience pretty soon does) on learning that the apartment isn’t the only thing that connects him to Madame Girard and her prickly daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), either.

A reference point for My Old Lady is Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (2012), a similarly stage-derived piece that also presented Maggie Smith with a role that gave her more to do than mere caustic quipping. But where Hoffman managed to make the best of Ronald Harwood’s mediocre material and create a warm, engaging and likeable film from it, Horovitz’s movie fatally lacks charm, wit or a semblance of believability.

The plot is stupid, the humour forced, and the heavily-signposted revelations unconvincing. The film is also decidedly weird in its presentation of French culture and characters. Mathias keeps resorting to Franglais for (alleged) comic effect, and there’s also a horribly snide little scene in which we’re invited to laugh at the fumbled efforts of a group of English language-learners.

The performances can’t be said to help matters much. Scott Thomas is shrill, Kline’s line readings vary between insecure and over-pitched (but then how would you deliver a line like “Oh, spare me the fromage!”?) and Smith doesn’t seem to have come up with much that’s fresh, either. To judge by the audience response, the film certainly hits the spot for some viewers, and it has a classy look that briefly fools you into thinking that there’s something of interest going on. But this is a bogus and feeble effort overall.






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.