★ ★ ★ While the awful title suggests some sort of comedy cockney knees-up, My Old Lady is in fact a much more dignified, wryly amusing affair, with Maggie Smith setting the tone as an English dowager living in Paris. Kevin Kline is her polar opposite, the noisy New Yorker who comes crashing into her life with more emotional baggage than personal belongings.
At 57, Mathias Gold (Kline) has accumulated nothing but debt and has spent his last pennies travelling to the French capital to claim an inheritance. His father has left him an impressive property, except that in accordance with a peculiar ancient law, it comes part and parcel with the current owner Madame Girard (Smith) and, on top of that, he is obliged to pay her rent if he wants to share the property, until such time as she kicks the bucket.
Naturally, the first question Mathias asks her is: “How old are you?” Girard claims to be 90, but Mathias discovers that she’s a woman who lies about her age. She is, in fact, 92. And unfortunately for him, she is a picture of health – the only sign of deadness chez Girard is the delivery of the dialogue. Both Kline and Smith are masters in the art and Smith, in a skewed way, brings some of Countess Grantham’s blunt wisdom from Downton Abbey to this role. Skewed, because even with so many decades of life experience, she is idealistic to a fault.
Mathias is a hardened cynic and as the story unfolds, the reasons for this are dropped like ten ton weights into the middle of scenes. Writer/director Israel Horovitz has adapted the story from his own play and if you didn’t already know that, it would become obvious from the heavy reliance on dialogue and revelation to drive the plot. Horovitz does avoid a too stultifying atmosphere, however, by following Mathias out on location, on the streets and along the Seine, whenever he needs to think about his next move.
A chess game develops between Mathias and Mme Girard, but soon it becomes less about navigating the loopholes of the French legal system and more about the complicated history of the property and the intentions of Mathias’s father in purchasing it. What’s clear early on is that he’s always felt badly let down by his old man and he likes to wallow in it, too, directing many of those stinging one-liners at himself. He risks losing sympathy because of it and that’s where the casting pays off, because Kline has enough natural charisma to level out the self-defeat. Later on, Girard’s confessions also serve to cast him in a slightly superior light.
No doubt Smith relished her part, because while it seems as though she is merely doing a riff on her role in Downton, there is much more to Girard than meets the eye – and she most certainly is not above reproach. There’s a naivety about the character that contradicts the image she projects and Smith plays her almost like a child at times, infuriating yet vulnerable.
Kristin Scott Thomas is the third wheel, playing the brittle daughter of Girard who takes an instant dislike to Mathias and inevitably begins to change her mind. Thomas is a good enough actress that she can make a meal out of a role that has as much substance as a crepe suzette; still, she is just an object of Mathias’s growing affection. It’s the casting that overcomes the sudsier aspects of the story and its gradual descent into moody melodrama, when the humour becomes less a tool to dissect the relationships and more a crutch to keep it from collapsing altogether. Like the old lady and the building she lives in, the film is just a bit creaky but not without its charms.
My Old Lady is showing at the London Film Festival on 13th October and is on general release from 21st November