I have admired Joan Plowright ever since I saw her in her first important film, "The Entertainer." She is often referred to in the press as Lady Olivier, as if she needed the extra boost of that honorific. But Plowright would have been a marvelous actress even if she had never set eyes on Laurence Olivier, let alone married him. The most pertinent thing one can say about their union is that he showed good taste.
Of course, good acting does not always happen in good movies. Plowright has made some excellent ones, including "Enchanted April" and "Uncle Vanya," but she was the only person worth watching in films like "Surviving Picasso" and "Bringing Down the House" (where she outsassed Queen Latifah). I regret I never saw her celebrated stage work in "Major Barbara," "Saint Joan," and "A Taste of Honey," for which she won a Tony.
Her performance as a genteel widow in "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is a small-scale gem, deeply felt without being in the least bit showy. It is often assumed that actors with extensive stage credentials are somehow unsuited to the subtleties of performing for the screen, but the best of them know exactly how to calibrate their emotions for each medium. This does not, by the way, mean that great screen acting must invariably be less "big" than stage acting - James Cagney is the classic retort to that canard. Plowright is one of the few performers who knows how to play "small" without disappearing into the scenery.
This is because each gesture, each glance, is backed by a full emotional history. She comprehends her characters in full before she ever speaks a line, but she always leaves room for the unexpected. That's why Plowright works so well with other performers; she is alive to the immediacy of collaboration.
The best moments in "Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont" play like little acting tutorials. With the encouragement of her daughter, Mrs. P. has moved from rural Scotland into London's musty but comfortable Claremont Hotel. It soon becomes clear, though, that neither the daughter nor her grandson has much interest in visiting her, so she forms polite friendships with the hotel's other permanent residents.
The dining room becomes the stage for a series of touching, humorous Terrence Rattigan-like set pieces - Rattigan is even invoked by the diners! - between Plowright and such celebrated British character actors as Anna Massey, playing a tart but kindhearted busybody, and the late Robert Lang, as the major who takes a shine to Mrs. Palfrey.
The bulk of the film, however, is occupied with less effective business. After stumbling in the street while out for a walk, Mrs. Palfrey is tended to by a would-be novelist and street musician, Ludo (Rupert Friend), whom she introduces to her friends as her grandson. Ludo is a free spirit who learns many life lessons from his new best friend, while Mrs. Palfrey basks in the chaste companionship.
It's all a bit too prim and cloyingly inspirational for my taste.
The source material for the film is a novel by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one) which has been updated by first-time, 85-year-old screenwriter Ruth Sacks and director Dan Ireland, who made the marvelous "Whole Wide World." That film starred Renée Zellweger, in her first notable role, and Vincent D'Onofrio as Robert K. Howard, creator of "Conan the Barbarian." Ireland's strength, then and now, is his ability to bring out the best in his actors. His visual imagination, however, is often perfunctory.
But there is nothing perfunctory about Plowright's work here. Although the filmmakers frame her character as a dear old thing, she allows the woman's sorrow to peep through the fusty façade. Mrs. Palfrey is too proud to appear lonely, and yet her loneliness comes through unmistakably, along with her quiet passion for a better life. It is a pleasure to be in her company for a few hours. Grade: B+
• This film is not rated.