★★★★ | My Old Lady
Mathias Gold thinks his luck has finally changed when he inherits an imposing apartment in the centre of Paris from his late father who he was estranged from for decades. Approaching his 60’s, Mathias is a recovering alcoholic and after three failed marriages and three unpublished novels, he hasn’t a cent in the bank, and had to scrape around to find the airfare to fly in from New York to claim his property. What he finds in the Marais is a large two-floor apartment with a private garden that is worth several million euros, but it comes with an unexpected catch.
There amongst the once grand salons is a 92 year old Englishwoman Madame Girard who had sold the apartment to his father 40 years prior but under an archaic French property law as he paid less than the going rate, she not only gets to live there for the rest of her life, but also gets a monthly stipend too. Horrified and pleading poverty Mathias persuades Mde Girard agrees to let him stay in exchange for paying rent whilst he tries to think what to do next. A plan that doesn’t meet with the approval of Chloe her daughter who also lives in this rambling dilapidated house.
As the story unfolds we learn that Mde Girard’s relationship with Mr Gold Snr was not confined to the property transaction as they were lovers too for some decades. As the plot thickens we get to appreciate that this frail looking ancient widow is a wily old bird who has a very full and happy past, something which seems to have completely eluded the icy unmarried Chloe or the bitter and self-loathing Mathias.
As Mathias tries against the odds to scheme to take control of the apartment he falls off the waggon and starts rapidly working his way through Mde Girad’s impressive wine cellar, and at the same time Chloe is plotting to try and keep the status quo. They are both such unlikable characters that it’s impossible to have empathy for either of them even when they clumsily fall into a too convenient happy ending.
The playwright Israel Horovitz adapted his own play for this his movie directing debut and has left some of the very speechy monologues in which actors so love. Kevin Kline giving a beautiful performance playing the unhappy Maurice makes the most of the rants he gets to give, whilst the sublime Kristin Scott Thomas as Chloe does well with the little that she is given to work with. The movie, of course, belongs to the old lady, as it should, as played so beautifully by Maggie Smith, the grand dame herself a mere 80 years in real life. It is one of her quietest and most understated performances for years but it is still so powerful and compelling. Her character is the only one who enjoys life and Dame Maggie subtlety ensures that we definitely know this.
It’s this ‘A’ list acting and the location of Paris exquisitely shot in a dim dusky light that makes this otherwise ‘thin’ story jump on to a ‘must see’ list. Dame Maggie alone is worth the price of the movie ticket.