Based on the novel by overlooked author Elizabeth Taylor (no, not the actress, but a wholly different creative entity), the film project actually began as a script written 25 years ago by Ruth Sacks, which was eventually brought to the attention of director Dan Ireland (The Whole Wide World), who transposed the setting from fifties England to the present day, with some standard scene and character compacting and the addition of new elements and dialogue - some contributed by co-executive producer Martin Donovan (Apartment Zero).
The manners, pacing, and genteel tone definitely evoke a fifties innocence, but Joan Plowright transcends the vintage melodrama by creating an affectionate, wisened Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed, who checks into a centrally located London hotel instead of moving in with her selfish daughter Anna, and twerpy grandson Desmond (newcomer Lorcan O'Toole, son of Peter).
Her friendship with struggling writer/busker Ludovic Meyer (Rupert Friend) remains genuine, and director Ireland usually manages to stay a few inches away from drippy sentimentality; a scene with Palfrey and Ludovic's disappointed mum feels the most contrived, and the bonding between Ludovic and the fair-haired Gwendolyn (Zoe Tapper) clicks far too easily (as does her own immediate affection for Palfrey), but there's a brisk economy to the script that serves the drama extremely well, and offers regular events that lead quite naturally towards an expected finite resolution.
If one can find any major fault in Ireland's film, it's the clichéd, quirky seniors who pepper the Claremont Hotel, but those roles are also transcended by some veteran stage and screen actors who manage to invest just the right amount of nuances and ticks without being maudlin, particularly Anna Massey (Peeping Tom, Frenzy, and De Sade), the “lioness” of her group, and unofficial house whip to the hotel's nosey busybodies.
Ludovic's eventual masquerade as Palfrey's grandson, Desmond, never really spawns any grand moments of comedic errors, which is a wise choice, given the film is first and foremost a simple portrait of two individuals who form a supportive friendship, and their efforts to be respected by their own families.
Probably the best scene is Ludovic's surprise serenade of “For All We Know” to Mrs. Palfrey, which isn't about the endurance of a good tune, but the small gestures that make friendships thrive; it's particularly poignant because it deals with a senior archetype known by everyone, and that's probably why the film has earned a fair share of supportive reviews since its festival premiere in late 2005.
Make for a tight $1 million and shot entirely on location, Mrs. Palfrey is an attractive production with fairly clean HD cinematography; a few shots (like passing London traffic) show some compression, and bright whites are a bit hot at times, but the production design is first rate, with a particularly lovely score by newcomer Stephen Barton.
Westlake 's DVD includes a commentary by director Ireland and co-producer Zachary Matz, recorded during the duo's location filming of E.L. Doctorow's Jolene (2008). On the minus side: the commentary was recorded with weak mics using a compressor that cranks up an annoying hum when no one's talking; the hum should've been filtered out, the volume levels fixed, and the sound of someone drinking from a water bottle excised from the track. The plus: technical flaws aside, it's a solid track where both filmmakers give an excellent account of the production, the eminent cast and newcomers, and a good amount of minutia that went into making the glossy film, including some major names who drifted in and out of the production, like co-producer Carl Colpaert (Delusion).
Ireland also provides some background on the Taylor novel, and major changes made to translate the book into a tightly paced film. The director also gives some info on the veteran cast, which includes Robert Lang (who passed away two weeks after production wrapped), Georgina Hale (The Boy Friend, and many other ken Russell films), and Millicent Martin (seen in original Alfie), and some autobiographical elements Ireland discretely injected into the film.
The other bonuses include brief and slightly tongue-in-cheek cast bio sketches, a photo gallery, film trailer, and Joan Plowright's acceptance speech after winning Best Actress Award at the AARP Awards. (Plowright delivers her thanks by video, while c-star Friend accepts the award from hostess Angela Lansbury, whom Ireland originally sought to play Mrs. Palfrey.)
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan