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Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (7/10)

by Tony Medley

At the start of this film, Mrs. Palfrey (Dame Joan Plowright) enters a run down hotel wherein dwell the elderly, living out their lives alone. “Oh, dear,” she says, communicating her intense disappointment. This looks like a paean to loneliness. But Director Dan Ireland demurs, “It’s not about loneliness; it’s about thinking about mortality,” a major difference.

Mrs. Palfrey has a grandson who never returns her phone calls. One day she falls and is treated kindly by Ludo (Rupert Friend), a young man struggling with life, but with an upbeat outlook. A beautiful friendship develops.

Ireland wanted Plowright from the outset. But this low budget film ($750,000) was to be shot in 24 days and Plowright, at 76, turned down the role as too vigorous for her. Ireland went after her and suggested that he could give her an additional week and promise that no day would last longer than eight hours. He also told his financial backers that if she didn’t take the role, there would be no film because he wouldn’t do it. He won on both counts.

Plowright is in every scene and deserves an Oscar nomination for her role as a lady who “has always been someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and someone’s mother.” Now she wants to live life for herself, and she does a fine job of it, with the help of the charismatic Ludo, who clearly loves her. In fact, everyone seems to love her but her cold daughter and equally self indulgent grandson, both of whom seem to view her as an annoyance. But Mrs. Paltrey is ever a lady and does not show her hurt to them.

Ireland tested 65 actors before he heard about Friend and got the word to him that he wanted to test him for the role. “Friend showed up for the audition with his guitar and sang the song, ‘For All We Know.’ When it was over my cinematographer was awash in tears and we had our Ludo,” says Ireland. Friend is a charismatic, talented presence and adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the film.

Plowright was not only in every scene, she was consulted on every major decision and saw all the rushes. When Ludo sings the song to Mrs. Palfrey in the film there could not be a dry eye in the theater.

Rosemary Clooney sings the final song of the film and the record company originally wanted $50,000, which would have been a budget buster. After seeing the finished film, they threw the song in for $5,000. Without the reduction, Clooney’s song would have not made it into the movie.

Ireland did not audition any of the elderly actors in the movie, all of whom are excellent. He just talked with them before casting. Case Proctor, who plays the manager of the Claremont in the film, was also casting director. Robert Long, who plays Mr. Osborne, who becomes smitten with Mrs. Palfrey, did not know he had lung cancer during shooting and passed away within a month of completion of filming.

This is a terrific homage to the elderly, told in a touching, sometimes humorous, but always sensitive, manner, helped immeasurably by an intuitive, brilliant script by Ruth Sacks.

December 1, 2005