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.