At the age of 75, and with over 70 plays under his belt, prolific theatre director Israel Horovitz makes his cinematic debut, adapting his 2002 stage play of the same name, My Old Lady (2014). Given Horovitz’s proven track record of crafting critically successful and award-winning narratives for theatre, one would be forgiven for thinking that a transition into film would be a smooth one. However the journey has proven to be bumpier than first thought, with this first feature failing to break free from the shackles of its theatre beginnings. My Old Lady centres upon three characters played by Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristen Scott-Thomas.
The strength of Horovitz’s canny casting truly elevates what is, in essence, a chamber piece. Matthias Gold (Kline) is a failed author and recovering alcoholic. When his father dies and leaves him a €12m apartment he decides to cash in and sell the apartment. Arriving in Paris, Matthias’ dreams are rapidly shattered after discovering that his grand inheritance is inhabited by Madame Girard (Smith), an ex-English teacher and curmudgeon, who, despite her 90-plus years, seems to be full of vigour. Her presence is due to a quirk of French property law, where the apartment that Matthias has inherited is a viager – a property where the previous owner can live until they die. In exchange the future owner pays them a fee instead of buying the property, essentially hoping the previous owner will die quickly and thus cash in quick.
Of course, comedy ensues. A forthright cardigan-clad Smith spits vitriolic lines at the befuddled and hopelessly lost Matthias, with at least one or two of her wry comments proving enough to crack an odd smile, or meagre chuckle. Scott-Thomas is thrown into the mix as Girard’s daughter, Chloe, an equally prickly character who, like Matthias, seems more than a little lost in the world. This trio of lost souls make for enjoyable viewing, however it all becomes a little too cosy. Whilst Horvitz’s quick dialogue and understanding of character shines through, it is disappointingly reminiscent of John Madden’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), and to a lesser extent Dustin Hoffman’s debut Quartet (2012). All the above fit into the unflatteringly dubbed “grey-pound” category, a genre that seeks to tell stories of later life in the most disappointing and unimaginative ways.
The story develops into a dragging up of the ghosts of the past, leading to revelations that cause Matthias to drown his sorrows in bottles of wine. Kline shines in such moments, capturing the oscillating anger and self-pity of the character, and appears more comfortable at full gusto than in the more emotionally demanding and tender aspects of the role. Smith is clearly comfortable in her role, allowing for a blend of the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey and Muriel from the aforementioned Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (with a French lilt). Disappointingly, Scott-Thomas is under-served by her character, yet does admirably well with even the weakest of material. My Old Lady might have benefited from a second screenwriter to come in and kill off a few of Horvitz’s darlings, to give the film a more cinematic tone, freeing it from the confines of its theatre heritage. Nevertheless this is arguably an entertaining watch.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh