Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Late spring calls for a visit to the video store to compensate for the flood of seasonal mediocrity in the theaters. “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” will burrow into your core. At first it will probably amuse and then delight you. But as it draws finally to a close, you may try to escape its emotional power; that won’t work. It’s authentic, and it will leave a mark.

            If you are a grandchild, you will be enlightened. If you are a son or daughter, you may rethink things; if you are a grandmother among grandmothers, you may well ache at the familiarity of the bewilderment that has engulfed Sarah Palfrey (Joan Plowright).

            After time and nature have reduced her to the role of spectator, Mrs. Palfrey reminds us, “I have been somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, and somebody’s mother. I want to be myself now.” She won’t marry again, she says to a fellow Claremont lodger who is old but eager, “but I have plenty of room for friends; will you be my friend?” A friend is the finest thing of all.

            “Oh dear,” she observes on first seeing the shabby, tiny room without a view. She enters the dining room on the first night of her new life in beautifully subdued black, prepared for whatever festivities may await her. She is hoping, we know, for the sparkling conversation and good food promised in the newspaper ad that drew her here. Instead, as she approaches her table for one, she sees other lone diners who are living in whatever private worlds their minds afford them

            Mrs. Palfrey silences the dining room on the night she enters with Ludo, the young writer she has asked to impersonate her absent grandson. Ludo (Rupert Friend), an impoverished writer and poet with tastes akin to those of Mrs. Palfrey’s beloved late husband Arthur, observes aptly, “We’re trapped in a Terrence Rattigan play.” They walk, they talk, they read Blake and Wordsworth aloud. And finally she steers the lonely young man toward a lovely young girl. “Mrs. Palfrey knew it was time to move on – but to where and for what?” It is that question that stabs every older person in a given audience. What now, and why?

            This is a lovely British movie acted in a burst of touching chemistry by Joan Plowright and the supremely pure Rupert Friend. He was for her the reminder of the romantic and cerebral life she and her husband had shared. She was for him the undemanding talking pal he needed while writing his book. Joan Plowright’s Mrs. Palfrey is dazzling. She is sharp, utterly without complaint, and very brave. Each time she comes into that dining room she is dressed in a simple elegance that she creates with an array of scarves tied this way and that, a five strand set of pearls and glorious clothes. This is something she knows how to do. She is ready for her new life - but where, and for what?

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