Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

By Peter Calder, Reviewed by Peter Calder

Herald rating: * * * * *

The kind of film that prompts the comment that they don't make 'em like they used to, this gentle and perfectly judged English comedy showcases the talent of a great actress in the title role.

Joan Plowright, who had an excellent outing in Tea With Mussolini opposite Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, has always been the least visible of the British grandes dames, saddled with roles that kept her in a dotty dotage.

Here the 77-year-old gets her first leading role and she gobbles it up.

When Sarah Palfrey arrives in London from Scotland she has high hopes. Fleeing her daughter, who wants her in a resthome, she takes up residence in a faded Lancaster Gate hotel where she hopes she'll see more of her grandson, Desmond, who works at the British museum.

As time goes by and Desmond neither appears nor returns her phone calls, she is mortified. Having told the other residents about him, she is running out of explanations for his invisibility.

Then she meets Ludovic (aka Ludo) Meyer (Friend), a writer house-sitting in the neighbourhood. An improbable and charming friendship is born in which he offers to masquerade as the missing grandson.

The set-up may remind the viewer of Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude - it certainly reminds the film-makers, who namecheck the oddball 1971 charmer - but this story has a more conventional and less ambitious arc.

Sure, Ludo, whose opening observation to Mrs Palfrey is that they both have ridiculous names, is too good to be true. But this is the kind of movie in which too-good-to-be-true things happen. People of heart and soul are rewarded and the mean-spirited get what's coming to them.

Director Ireland leaves his ensemble plenty of room to move and his cast is superb: Massey as the bossy Mrs Arbuthnot, who keeps the nosier Claremont residents in check; Robert Lang as a bibulous suitor; Timothy Bateson as a porter more decrepit than the hotel; all are wonderful.

But it's Plowright's film and she's a joy. At one point, Ludo innocently utters a rather saucy double entendre, and the camera stays on her face. In the space of a few seconds, she conveys mock shock, deep delight and a quite joyous sexiness. It's true: they actually don't make 'em like they used to.

Trivia-spotters will enjoy the film's twin references to David Lean's Brief Encounter. When Mrs Palfrey first appears, she's wearing Celia Johnson's hat. And the film itself, on DVD, is later used as a wooing tool.

Verdict: Plowright, the least seen of the British grandes dames, gobbles up her best role in years in a tender, touching and often very funny odd-couple comedy.

Cast: Joan Plowright, Rupert Friend, Anna Massey
Director: Dan Ireland
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating : M, adult themes
Screening: Bridgeway, Rialto

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