"Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is a very small film that sets out to do a very small thing: paint a portrait of a friendship between an old lady and a young man. It succeeds so well at this modest goal that it touches on vaster mysteries of human connection and lives well lived. It's an altogether satisfying drama -- the sort of movie some people complain they don't make anymore. So here it is; what's your excuse?
Directed cleanly and rather impersonally by Dan Ireland -- I mean that as a compliment, for once -- ``Mrs. Palfrey" offers a rare starring role to Dame Joan Plowright, that great actress who sacrificed movies to a career on the stage and to raising a family with the late Laurence Olivier. Her title character is a 70-something widow who arrives in London from Scotland after the death of her husband; Mrs. Palfrey is retiring to what she assumes is a splendid residential hotel in the heart of the city.
To her polite dismay, the Claremont is small and down at the heels, and the only thing older than the dining room chairs are the people sitting in them: duffers like Mr. Osborne (Robert Lang) and acid-tongued dowagers like Mrs. Arbuthnot (Anna Massey of 1960's ``Peeping Tom," still going strong). Mrs. Palfrey may be polite to a fault, but she's no fool, and rotting alongside these stiffs isn't what she had in mind.
Unfortunately, her prig of a grandson (Lorcan O'Toole) never visits, and Mrs. Palfrey begins to fall prey to the loneliness that bedevils the aged. When she trips and falls outside the basement flat of a young man named Ludovic (Rupert Friend), he brings her in for tea, and she decides that he'll do just fine as a grandson as far as the Claremont regulars are concerned. The film advances the radical notion that your family should deserve you -- and if they don't, you should find appropriate substitutes.
That's all there is to the movie, really. Beyond that mild comedy of imposture, ``Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is about friendship -- nothing more and nothing less. There's bitter to go with the sweet, but both these characters take a quiet, intelligent delight in their companionship, and that delight is passed to us. The young man, a subway busker and would-be writer, listens to Mrs. Palfrey's stories of an unimportant but measured life and finds specific wisdom there; the older woman warms herself at the fire of youth's ardor and is glad for the reminder. They could be the only people in all London who truly see each other.
If this sounds like it's heading into ``Harold and Maude" territory, I'm sorry to disappoint you (and, anyway, get your mind out of the gutter). The desperately hip stand to be desperately bored by ``Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," a movie so unfashionable that its young hero batters out his stories on a typewriter rather than a computer. It's a film to be enjoyed by those who either haven't yet grown into cynicism or have grown beyond it. It may be a perfect date movie for grandmothers and granddaughters (although be cautioned that some tears are in the offing).
Fittingly, there's a quaint slippage of time to ``Mrs. Palfrey," even beyond that wayward typewriter. The credits claim to be ``introducing" us to Rupert Friend but we've already seen him as the dastardly Wickham in the most recent ``Pride and Prejudice" and as Johnny Depp's drinking buddy in ``The Libertine."
Similarly, the script is based on a novel by the late English writer Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one) and adapted by Ruth Sacks, who penned it more than 30 years ago, put it in a drawer, and finally has her first film credit at the age of 85. Age, says this unassuming jewel of a movie, lets us see farther. Youth lets us see brighter. Those who have both are the blessed.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.