Three Reasons to See An Ordeal

My Old Lady

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            How can anything possibly go wrong with a movie that fills the screen with Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas? When the acting is flawless, as it is here, the blame for any problems must go to writer/director Israel Horovitz.
            For the problems, look to the structure. Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a dispirited New Yorker worn down by failure, inherits an apartment in a marvelous old building in Paris. He meets the current tenants Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) and is told coldly by Mathilde that French custom gives her life tenancy in his apartment. It’s hers till she dies.
            In a move that’s a tricky feat for any writer or director, Mr. Horovitz tries to lace a serious story with humor and fails because each of his characters is dealing with troubles that can’t be easily fixed. Mathias had a lifelong dislike of the father who was never there and now resents his problematic inheritance. “He got me again,” he says with anger. Reaching middle age without ever finding work to love, he turned to alcohol, gave it up, and now resumes. Watching Kevin Kline slurping from an upturned bottle through most of the movie says loudly that the script simply doesn’t give him enough to do or say.
            Though Mathias’ arguments with the aged Mathilde have funny moments, even these are undermined by sadness. In her 90s, Mathilde sleeps a great deal, falls occasionally, and is troubled by this new intruder who challenges her right to the apartment. No one has done Maggie Smith any favors by putting her in a light brown wig that robs her of the natural dignity she is known for. She is being asked to act slow death with conviction.
            Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) lives on the second floor, teaches English just as her mother once did and lives in a state of reluctant acceptance of her lot. Kristin Scott Thomas, quite predictably, finds exactly the right note to hit for this situation by dressing and behaving in an ordinary way. Ordinary is not an adjective for this actor under any circumstances, but she captures perfectly a woman still hoping for deliverance.
            These are three characters living with bad situations when suddenly a flood of family secrets engulfs them. The secrets lend positive structure to the story and in turn hand three fine actors the chance to break free to shine in the final scenes after treading water in a mediocre script. We have watched Maggie Smith scuffle with old age, Kevin Kline with alcoholism, and Kristin Scott Thomas with resignation, all stuck in private dilemmas until a fine but facile ending offers a rescue for all.
            After criticizing the movie with reluctance, I add that most of us would see it under any circumstances just for the pleasure of watching three of the film world’s finest actors work together to overcome a scripted ordeal.


Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : My Old Lady
Distributor : BBC Films
Running Time : 1:47
Word Count : 497
Rating : PG-13

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