A quiet autumnal palate cleanser, “My Old Lady” is a grown-up drama set in Paris, and starring only earthlings, none younger than forty, with no explosions, special effects, murders, sex or even cursing. The actors are positively magisterial in their credentials: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith, all playing complicated, intelligent, damaged adults.
Kevin Kline plays a broke, desperate New Yorker who inherits a potentially valuable Paris apartment from his estranged father. Wandering through the gorgeous, spacious abode, he discovers Maggie Smith, and a host of complications standing between him and the millions he wants to get as quickly as possible from the sale of the apartment.
Kline is dismayed to discover that his father purchased the apartment decades ago under unique French auspices called a “viager” in which the apartment is purchased inexpensively but the seller, Maggie Smith, maintains possession and dwells there until her death. Furthermore, she must be paid monthly rent. The chances of when she will pass away quickly become of utmost importance.
This is a major disappointment to Kline, who is depressed and desperate, and sold everything he had to get to Paris and cash in. He is a hard figure to like initially, and does not attempt to ingratiate himself to Smith or to the viewer. Instead, he acts as unscrupulously as he can to try to right what he feels are tremendous wrongs from his father.
That becomes the focus of the story; as Kline attempts to find a way to sell his apartment, we learn more and more about what makes him so unhappy. In time, Maggie Smith has far more to tell us about that than we first realize. As her unhappy daughter, Kristin Scott Thomas further explicates the film’s themes of the lifetime ravages of childhood trauma.
If it sounds rather dreary, it is, or at least, it’s all rather sad. You see the poster and you assume that unlikely friendships will be formed over good food and a lively soundtrack, but this is not really the case. Kline is wonderful as a wryly miserable guy, but Maggie Smith is even better. The implications from a lifetime of moral excuses she has told herself are slowly and dramatically revealed, and, to see her intelligent character finally unmasked to herself is fascinating. Smith can be a hilariously haughty old lady all day long, and it’s wonderful, but this is something more, and it’s even better.
Be assured, as you worry yourself through the film’s glum beginnings, that a measure of comfort waits for some of the characters, but, like the rest of the film, it’s realistic. A quiet, thoughtful and ultimately satisfying film, “My Old Lady” is a truly well-executed story told by some of the finest actors you can possibly watch in a film.
“My Old Lady” is now playing at the Crescent Theater.