The “Claremont” in the title of Mrs. Palfrey and the Claremont refers to a dilapidated old London hotel filled with sad, desperate, senior citizens who sit around day after day with nothing to look forward to except the same food and conversations they had the day before. For a film that claims to be “the feel good movie of the year”, Mrs. Palfrey is unquestionably depressing, with such buoyant subject matter including, but not limited to: being elderly, lonely, and abandoned by your ungrateful family; as well as waiting patiently for death while languishing in virtual poverty.
The main story that frames what passes for action is innocuous enough: a genteel young writer with model good looks named Ludo (Rupert Friend) accidentally meets the titular genteel old widow (Joan Plowright), and they strike up an unlikely and highly unbelievable friendship in which he mines her memories for material for an insipid novel he is writing. Mrs. Palfrey nearly immediately “adopts” Ludo as her own grandson as her own doesn’t bother to return her phone calls.
With a startling quickness, the old broad and the nubile hottie begin a close-knit relationship that makes very little sense, but is nonetheless compulsively watchable in the strictest Lifetime Television movie / unintentional hilarity sense. The dreamy whipper snapper (who apparently knows no one his own age in London) plays guitar and sings for his muse, while she instructs him to rent David Lean’s romantic Brief Encounter (which is, by the way, very good advice). It’s tremendously hard to believe that someone so good looking and free-spirited would choose to spend all of his time hanging out with an old lady (one ancillary character even makes a lame Harold and Maude reference to draw our attention to the obvious), but for the sake of argument, let’s just call it sweet of him and surrender to the schmaltz of it all. The sheer British-ness and old lady-ness of it all extends all the way to the elaborate press kit, which inexplicably included not only a packet of tea with a cup and saucer, but also a doilie to place it on!
The Claremont Hotel is filled with obscenely overwrought caricatures of retirement home behavior: In one pivotal, ridiculous sequence, Mrs. Palfrey’s cold fish of a daughter begins the scene by storming into London, all the way from Scotland, just to berate her mother for not seeing her real grandson and ends it with the woman obsessively text-messaging on her cell phone while an elderly woman lays dying on the floor in front of her. Then to add to the insult of these overly-serious, half-baked scenes, it is never explained what happened to the woman on the floor, she just goes away abruptly (which is a damn shame for veteran actress Anna Massey of Peeping Tom fame, who at least seems to be really enjoying herself, here). There are so many subplots involving the other residents that are either not fully explored (like Mrs. Palfrey’s suitor who wants to marry her, but then just fades out of the picture) or just grazed over (like the showbiz family who wants her grandson to perform in their show and then never really talks about it again). Perhaps with some more complete supporting characters in the mix, the central story of Mrs. Palfrey and Ludo pretending to be related might have been more palatable, but standing alone, the premise unfortunately gets boring faster than one can say “tea and crumpets”.
The dour, ill-conceived (and haphazardly written) proceedings thankfully are slightly redeemable because of the quiet, interesting performance of Plowright, the widow of Sir Laurence Olivier. What makes this performance (which might not seem very appealing at the outset) so engaging is simply that a female senior citizen was granted a leading role in a film at all. Secondly, Plowright, despite a long, esteemed career, makes few film appearances (the bulk of her accolades come from her theatrical work with The Royal Shakespeare Company in England), making Mrs. Palfrey a true event. It is the most fully-fleshed out, most expertly realized performance of her film career. Usually (and presumably insultingly) relegated to playing dithering, meddling stereotypes in her older years (for the most telling example of this, check out her cartoonish, Oscar-nominated performance in Enchanted April, a huge waste of a nomination even for a weak year like 1992), it is a triumph for the actress to have been given such a multi-dimensional, challenging part: she has to play comedy, drama, sickness, and everything in between. A part with so many complicated facets would be a challenge for an actress of any age, but Plowright nails it out of the park quite effortlessly.
As Mrs. Palfrey begins to slip into bad health, dementia, and confusion, the film takes a turn for the decidedly more depressing and Ludo races to find an ending for his novel. The montages that are meant to showcase learning, respect, and poignancy, in the end showcase a weak directorial style. While it seems as though director Dan Ireland was going for something a bit more “hip” that would be pleasant for all generations, there is something about mature British ladies that just doesn’t translate to anyone under the age of 40 (despite the obvious move of casting the matinee-idol friendly Friend). Then again, who in their right mind really wants to snuggle up on their couch with a little cup of tea to spend two hours of their free time watching a depressing film set in a cheerless retirement hotel filled with old, crabby British women? Besides me, that is?