Time after time: Dan Ireland's loving treatment of 'Mrs. Palfrey'

"What's your favorite film?" young Ludovic (Rupert Friend) quizzes Mrs. Palfrey (Joan Plowright), his 77-year-old dinner guest. "'Brief Encounter,'" she answers, explaining that the classic tearjerker sparked long-ago love between her and her now-dead husband. "And your favorite song?" "'For All We Know,'" she replies, opining it's too old a number for the boy to know. The camera holds on Plowright's expressive face, as Ludo softly sings a sweet hymn to brief encounters ("we may never meet again") and seizing the day ("tomorrow may never come, for all we know").

During that glowing interlude - three-quarters of the way through Dan Ireland's "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" - Plowright teaches us the pleasures of witnessing a distinctive woman/actress at work, pressing into service her seasoned beauty and a lifetime's wisdom to project visible memories, experiences, the ghosts of lovers and players past. All of this wealth passes eloquently over her face like movies of her past. We, along with her serenader, are privileged to witness the sum of her losses as well as the shining imagination that counts them as nothing.

The director of only four films, Dan Ireland (who 30 years ago co-founded the Seattle International Film Festival) has consistently demonstrated a gift for cherishing and encouraging great actors, and for drawing superb performances from neophytes; see especially Renée Zellweger in his 1996 directorial debut "The Whole Wide World." Something in Ireland loves how thespians dream themselves different, richer, more beautiful - for our benefit. He also has an old-fashioned respect for the traditions of theatrical and cinematic fictions. In many ways, "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is first and foremost Ireland's homage to the aristocrats - high and low - of British acting.

Impressed by a colorful advert, Mrs. Palfrey has come to London to stay at the Claremont Hotel, a sort of retirement resort. But the sad, shabby reality of the place is quite a letdown for this widely traveled, independent soul. Dressed formally for her first dinner, she enters a dining room inhabited by isolated, zombiefied oldsters.

Eccentric fogies at first glance, the Claremont residents are, in the course of the film, gifted with history and hopes and pretensions to dignity by a veritable Who's Who of British stage and screen: Anna Massey (Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," Hitchcock's "Frenzy"), Georgina Hale (a Ken Russell fave), Marcia Warren (three Laurence Olivier Awards for outstanding stage performances), Millicent Martin (the first and only "Alfie"), Robert Lang, a trouper who died just after filming was completed. (Forming up a lively chorus line with two Claremont girls, Hale offers a rousing reprise of "Never Too Late to Fall in Love," her song-and-dance in Ken Russell's 1971 "The Boy Friend.")

Sarah Palfrey takes in the Claremont crew with a clear, yet compassionate, eye. In Anna Massey's sharp-tongued Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. P. glimpses some of her own pride and carefully guarded privacy. When boozy Mr. Osbourne proposes marriage after a single dinner outing, the lady subtly disses his drinking but not the quality of his romantic fantasy. Declining his marital bid, Mrs. Palfrey asks for something more valuable to her: his friendship.

In every encounter, you can see the workings of Mrs. Palfrey's bone-deep courtesy, as she registers the nuances, the complexity, of characters and situations easily dismissed or belittled by a less cultivated woman. That anachronistic phrase, "a cultivated woman," stands as an apt epitaph for Ireland's heroine and star, whose precise, graceful diction proclaims that words and intonation matter, possess the power to advance or retard civilization.

When the increasingly lonely widow takes a nasty tumble on the street, she's rescued by a longhaired knight (Friend) in tattered jeans, who applies iodine to her skinned knee, then offers a bracing cup of tea. On the same wavelength, perhaps even in the same spiritual time frame, the pair fall into instant rapport and something like a trans-temporal love affair, as Ludo stands in for an indifferent grandson (Lorcan O'Toole, son of Peter), an unfeeling dolt who never returns her calls.

Lately Mr. Wickam, the heartless seducer in "Pride and Prejudice," the model-handsome Friend starts out a bit too self-consciously cute and precious as the courtly boy who befriends Mrs. Palfrey. But he soon settles down, playing charming second fiddle to the superb Plowright. The camera lovingly lingers on his youthful good looks and unpolished acting style - the other end of the spectrum in a film full of British pros.

Nothing so tasteless or clichéd as a May-December romance is suggested; rather, the film celebrates a serendipitous relationship of soulmates that raises a self-deprecating boy to manhood, and allows a woman approaching her end to reimagine her youth. Ireland has a rare ability to see age and youth on the same plane of mortality, so that the elderly are never stigmatized as a separate, alien species - as is the habit of most contemporary directors.

"Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" takes its own good time unreeling, punctuated by dramatic tours-de-force, such as the one described in this review's opening paragraph. Ireland clearly can't get enough of Plowright's "speaking" face - and who's complaining? Adapted from Elizabeth Taylor's '70s novel by Ireland and Ruth Sachs (an 85-year-old first-time screenwriter), this story was originally set in the '50s; it's updated to the present because the production budget wouldn't cover time-warping a corner of London

Enacted at the intersection of so many different "times," there's something a little out of joint about "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," as though it's wavering in and out of nowness, slipping into a simpler past even as narrative and time move the film forward. Dan Ireland honors a dying world and acting style by bringing it to life on the screen, with civilized warmth and courtesy. It's a pleasure to have been invited.[[In-content Ad]]