The tale of an unlikely friendship between an elderly widow and a young writer, “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” is an endearing, deceptively simple story. Like helmer Dan Ireland’s previous (and very different) films, “Mrs. Palfrey” excels at presenting a relationship unfurling. Pic’s debt to “Harold and Maude” is clear — one character, eyeing the friendship, even mentions that classic comedy by name — but this is a far gentler film, a low-key drama with comedic undertones that will appeal to older auds, arthouse patrons, and Joan Plowright fans.
When Mrs. Palfrey (Plowright) arrives at London’s Claremont Hotel (sporting, in a delicious homage, Celia Johnson’s hat from “Brief Encounter”), she announces under her breath, “I had expected something quite different.” In fact, her stay at the senior-oriented residence hotel is nothing like she anticipated.
Having relocated from Scotland to be near her 26-year-old grandson Desmond (Lorcan O’Toole), Mrs. Palfrey soon faces a host of questions from well-meaning but nosy fellow residents. Where is Desmond, wonders Mrs. Arbuthnot (Anna Massey), among others, and when will he be coming to visit?
But Desmond fails to return Mrs. Palfrey’s many calls. Just as she is about to retreat into loneliness, she stumbles and falls outside the flat of aspiring scribe Ludovic “Ludo” Meyer (Rupert Friend). Meyer treats her wounds, and a friendship begins. In their ensuing conversations, it’s clear that each fills a void for the other, and that these two lonely souls have much more in common that meets the eye. Ludo even agrees to pass himself off as Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson during a visit to the Claremont.
Some situational comedy follows, especially when the real Desmond finally shows up and Mrs. Palfrey tries to pass him off as her accountant.
But pic’s best moments are those in which the friendship of Mrs. Palfrey and Ludo grows into a deep bond. One scene in particular, in which Ludo serenades her with an impromptu version of “For All We Know,” is beautifully directed.
Mrs. Palfrey inadvertently plays matchmaker for Ludo when she recommends her favorite film, “Brief Encounter,” to him, and, at the video store, Ludo collides with another customer, Gwendolyn (Zoe Tapper of “Stage Beauty”), who becomes his girlfriend.
Plowright is cast here in one of her best roles in years. So often relegated to dotty supporting perfs, she carries this pic squarely on her shoulders as the proud, private Mrs. Palfrey.
And, she’s surprisingly well-matched by Friend as the kindly young writer. Friend joins a list of young actors shepherded by Ireland, including Renee Zellweger, Thomas Jane and Emmy Rossum; with his strapping looks and ample talent, Friend can expect bigger roles ahead.
Final act is unexpectedly dark and poignant, but also offers hope and misty optimism. The entire film has a retro look and feel that is especially evident in its costumes and intimate settings. Pic also features also a rich, evocative score by Steven Barton.