My Old Lady (Cohen Media Group, PG-13)

myoldlady 75If My Old Lady does not always succeed dramatically, it’s still a superb vehicle for its actors.

 

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Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, and Paris? Perfect together, even if the vehicle that brings them together is an adaptation of a creaky family-secrets play whose conclusion can be spotted on the distant horizon long before it appears, like the tiny dust cloud that gradually becomes Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.

My Old Lady, starring Kline, Smith, and an underused Kristin Scott Thomas, is directed by Israel Horowitz from an adaption of his play of the same name. There’s nothing wrong with Horowitz’s directing: He extracts fine performances from the actors, gives us plenty of Parisian exteriors, and adds enough characters to make this feel like a proper movie rather than a filmed version of a play. But the play itself is based on predictable problem-drama issues of family resentments and infidelities and the necessity to take responsibility for one’s own life and actions, and My Old Lady doesn’t have much to say on these issues that you haven’t heard many times before.

Mathias Gold (Kline) arrives in Paris to take possession of his deceased father’s palatial apartment, which he wants to sell as quickly as possible. Back in America, Gold is a failed novelist and three-time loser in the marriage wars, and he desperately needs the money from the apartment sale to get back on his financial feet. He also feels that the apartment is owed him as compensation for the neglect his businessman father showed him while alive, the first of many family issues that will be raised over the course of the film.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch, which he discovers shortly after his arrival: The apartment is a viager, occupied the elderly but healthy Madame Giarard (Smith). By law, she has the right to remain there for the rest of her life, and to collect a monthly stipend from the owner, as well.

Girard also has a daughter, Chloe (Scott Thomas), who lives in the apartment, is unmarried and about Gold’s age, and exudes hostility for no obvious reason. Gold’s immediate problem is to find enough money to remain in Paris (his first move is to rent a room from Girard, and then surreptitiously sell some of her furniture to raise the necessary cash) long enough to let the complex relationships among the characters be revealed to the audience. Honestly, the exposition is sometimes so mechanical that you could set your watch by it, and it becomes clear early on just which revelations are waiting in the wings, anticipating their moment on stage before the final curtain falls.

A play can succeed as a laboratory for examining human emotions, with the artificiality of the set-up providing an extra measure of validation to the obviously artificial context (in this case, a world inhabited by only three people, whose actions are confined to the space provided by the stage). But make a conventional film of the same play, incorporating other characters and real-life locations, and some of that intensity is inevitably lost. I haven’t seen the original play, but this seems to be what happened in My Old Lady: The added elements tend to distract rather than reinforce the point of it all, which is to watch the three central characters discover and work out their issues.

If My Old Lady does not always succeed dramatically, it’s still a superb vehicle for its actors. In fact, the best thing about the film is Kevin Kline, whose acting is a model of restraint as he delivers some improbably long and literary speeches that could have become melodramatic in the hands of a less-skilled actor (and, in fairness, since his character is a failed writer, he might really talk like that). Maggie Smith is also very good, if somewhat more predictable, and Kristin Scott Thomas is fine despite the fact that the script gives her the least to do.

My Old Lady was shot entirely on location in Paris, with the restrained cinematography (no Woody Allen–style postcard shots) by Michel Amathieu and production design by Pierre-François Limbosch providing pleasant bonuses for the viewer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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