Every now and then a movie enriches us. If you’ve not seen the 2005 British movie, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, based on Elizabeth Taylor’s acclaimed novel (not that Taylor but a British writer who died some years ago) and brilliantly adapted by screenwriter Ruth Sachs, don’t miss it. It’s unflinchingly but quietly a Big Story, an eminently civilized one, and one that with a beautiful austerity is entirely about no less than the arc of human life, those inscrutably lucky and those inscrutably not so lucky–which is to say, in sum, Everyone–in the ballistic flight of youth, love, decline and passing. It’s staged perfectly in a clockwork spare world with something of the focusing, transporting, drawing-in power of old, simply presented tragedies on shadowy, Platonic stages. It mingles the old and the young as they live together and encounter one another briefly in the mystery of human experience.
Joan Plowright, through whose eyes nearly all the story is told, is so superb in the lead that you are spellbound, simply transported, all the way through by her performance; it must be about as close to perfection as we could expect.
Lonely and virtually abandoned in a London hotel catering to retirees, Mrs. Palfrey has a chance encounter with a young writer, Ludovic Meyer, which leads to an unlikely and bracing friendship in which each draws the other out, the upshot being that Mrs. Palfrey understands her past as never before and Ludovic reflects significantly on his future. Delightful and touching episodes ensue, bringing forth several affecting characters.
The chief cultural references in this masterpiece are (1) the film, Brief Encounter; (2) Wordsworth, he of the intimations of immortality and the lost splendor in the grass; (3) William Blake as a counter poet to the oldsters’ Wordsworth, Blake singing the right song for the life-drunk young in their fleeting immortality and apocalyptic expectations; and (4) the great show-tune standard, “For All We Know,” and its beautiful, and here sublimely apt, lyric.
The scoring of “For All We Know” as the film is ending and then the credits scrolling is inspired, haunting, and very moving. (It’s like “Parker’s Mood” at the end of the film, Bird, that scoring moment one of the many inspired choices by director Clint Eastwood’s musical arranger, former Kenton alto man and arranger, Lennie Niehaus). The timing and the song and the lyrics of “For All We Know” couldn’t be more fitting than here in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I can’t imagine that great song ever having been presented more powerfully.
As is usual with great storytelling, this movie has a strangeness about it for a few minutes after it opens, perhaps one reason being that it lies universes away from the cinematic tripe whose advertisements are plastered on the “Arts and Entertainment” pages every day. But soon enough, it brushes aside our corrupted audience reflexes to become The World.
All the carpentry–editing, scene, atmosphere, camera work and so on–is superb.