Title: My Old Lady
Director: Israel Horowitz
Major Players: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas
Out Of Five: 3.5
It’s about time we were reminded that Maggie Smith can do more than play dowager duchesses with razor sharp tongues. She’s been doing it ever since Gosford Park and has only just finished trotting it out every Sunday on Downton Abbey. But we all know she can do so much more, which makes her latest film, My Old Lady, a welcome change of style.
And before I say anything else, do make sure you stay until the end of the credits for this one, even if you don’t usually. There’s a couple of extra scenes dropped in that will tie up some loose ends – and raise a wry smile or two as well.
Smith’s Madame Girard is in her nineties, reliant on a stick to walk around but mentally still sharp and not averse to telling the occasional porky when it suits her. Her Paris apartment doesn’t exactly belong to her – it’s the result of a quirk in the French legal system called a viager, which is a bit of a gamble on how long the resident is going to live. But the apartment has also been left to Matthias (Kevin Kline) by his father in his will. It’s just there’s no explanation of the viager complication, so he doesn’t get the inheritance he’s expecting. He’s allowed to stay by Madame Girard and her daughter Chloe (Kristen Scott Thomas) and the dual stories of his father’s relationship with the elderly lady, and the one about his own mother and her eventual husband, start to unravel.
The film’s based on the stage play of the same name, as well as being written and directed by the author. And, like many stage plays adapted for the screen, it betrays its heritage, with much of the story set in the apartment in question. However, Horowitz does use every opportunity to get outside four walls – the garden, the banks of the Seine, the estate agent’s office – so it avoids feeling overly claustrophobic. And it has to be said that the apartment is eminently desirable – full of character and with one especially wonderful room with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the surprisingly generous garden. Even if it does have only one loo, who wouldn’t want to live there?
Relationships with parents and partners is the theme running through the film and, given how Matthias’ early life – and his current one – was affected by his father, it brings to mind a certain Philip Larkin poem. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Most of the humour is understated, often ironic, which accentuates the more overt moments, especially the one involving a mounted boar’s head and an empty wine bottle! There’s also the delightful irony of the friendly estate agent who turns out to live in a house boat on the Seine instead of in his house – because it’s a viager as well! But, with an estate agent’s luck, the resident died soon after he’d moved into the boat.
As you would expect from the trio of Smith, Kline and Scott Thomas, the acting is more than up to scratch. Kline’s comic abilities and timing are well used, particularly when he reverts to the bottle, while Smith goes for something more understated, but her ability to fill a single line until it overflows with meaning is something to watch.
My Old Lady is a Sunday afternoon film, but of a superior variety. There’s much to admire in the acting and the autumnal beauty of Paris, and to think about in terms of the characters’ relationships. Although if you’re going through a rocky patch with your parents – or anybody else, come to that – you might find it just too close to the bone.
My Old Lady is released in the UK on Friday, 21 November.