In "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," Joan Plowright plays an elderly widow who moves to London in search of culture, like minds and the company of her only grandson, Desmond. But the elegant hotel she anticipated turns out to be a shabby pensioners home, its residents a waxworks of empire-in-decline types (one is even a ruddy-cheeked major) and young Desmond a no-show. Just as the reality of her new life is beginning to sink in -- Mrs. Palfrey appears to have checked herself into Jean-Paul Sartre's lost teleplay for the BBC2 -- she falls into an unlikely friendship with Ludovic Meyer (Rupert Friend), an aspiring writer roughly a quarter her age.
Ludo is a soul whose art and sensibilities seem to require that he live in this century as though it were the last. So he spends his days pounding out stories on a manual typewriter so creaky it makes an IBM Selectric look futuristic, busking on the subway and breaking his mother's heart. When Mrs. Palfrey trips and falls in front of his apartment one afternoon, Ludo invites her inside for some tea and sympathy. Before long, he's happily impersonating Desmond for the benefit of Mrs. Palfrey's new chums, transforming himself into the "mythical grandson" of the Claremont's collective dreams.
"Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is a low-key weepy about loneliness and (possibly) learning to conform one's romantic expectations to reality. The loneliness -- thanks largely to Plowright's affecting performance -- it does well. Plowright and Friend's warm connection makes their friendship plausible, especially as the actress beautifully calibrates the ratio of shy hesitation, grandmotherly doting and urbane camaraderie that characterizes her affection for the lad. But it's harder to buy the movie in a larger context, as the world its protagonists inhabit bears little resemblance to the real one. It's not just that most of the secondary characters seem to have wandered out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel or a mid-'70s Mike Leigh set. It's that their expectations of life are just enough out of step with the contemporary world to make them seem eccentric, if not cracked. Why, for instance, would the perspicacious Mrs. Palfrey, no matter her age, dress for dinner on her first night at a place like the Claremont in this day and age? And why would Ludo spend his days submitting typewritten manuscripts who knows where, when he could be, I don't know, blogging?
It helps to know that the story, adapted by Ruth Sacks from a book by the British novelist Elizabeth Taylor, was written in the 1970s and set in the '50s. The movie has been transposed to the present day by Sacks and director Dan Ireland ("The Whole Wide World") for budgetary reasons, but it hasn't quite been adapted. Contemporary life barely intrudes on the faded-chintz gentility that dominates the screen, so London seems not frozen in time so much as suspended in no time at all. Mrs. Palfrey's daughter demonstrates her Digital Age inhumanity by furiously (and unbelievably) pecking at her hand-held moments after Mrs. Palfrey's friend keels over. But details that would have identified Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey as average people living commonplace lives now make them seem like a couple of crazy dreamers. It would be one thing if this were the intention -- but for that to work the movie would have done well to push it further. As it is, "Mrs. Palfrey" seems to suggest the Claremont is located somewhere in the Twilight Zone. Where are the televisions? Where are the chain stores? Where are the immigrants? I see the buildings, but where is England?
'Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Inoffensive, but probably not much fun for kids
Director Dan Ireland. Producers Lee Caplin, Zachary Matz, Carl Colpaert. Screenplay by Ruth Sacks. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Director of photography Claudio Rocha. Film editors Nigel Galt, Virginia Katz. Music by Stephen Barton. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.