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United Kingdom/France/USA 2014
Directed by
Israel Horovitz
106 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

My Old Lady

Synopsis: Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) travels from New York to Paris to sell an apartment he has inherited from his estranged father but arrives to find it is inhabited by an old lady, Mathilde (Maggie Smith), and her hostile daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mathias discovers that, under French law, the apartment is viager, meaning that not only will he not own the property until Mathilde dies but he must pay her monthly instalments on the original sale value until then. In effect, he has inherited a debt. He accepts Mathilde’s offer to live in part of the apartment and gradually each of the characters begins to uncover a lot about their past and hitherto unknown shared connections.

Israel Horovitz based his film upon a hit play that he wrote in 2002. Whilst the play relied upon the three characters in the confined setting of an apartment, he has broadened his film to incorporate the City of Lights. Hence we first meet Mathias as he arrives penniless in Paris and navigates his way through the labyrinthine Marais district in search of  the apartment. This is only one of several delightful scenes featuring the great city. The main setting, however, remains the apartment with its claustrophobic atmosphere and grotesque stuffed animals’ heads mounted on the wall, a legacy of Mathilde’s deceased husband having been an avid game hunter.

The two women and Matthias begin as virtual enemies cooped up in this confined space but the gradual arc of thawing of hostilities is a pleasure to watch. The slow revelations of connections are well handled, as are the changes the characters undergo as they discover how the past has shaped their present lives and problems. As layers of the past are uncovered we understand why each one carries the baggage they do and especially the damage done by parents to their offspring when stability of the family unit breaks down.  Although presented with a bitter-sweet approach that, deftly mixes humour and sadness, the story’s resolution seems to come a little too suddenly which makes for an overly-neat ending.

In many ways the characters are quite unlikeable for much of the time. What makes the film compelling however are the fine performances by the three leads. Kline, always adept at blending comedy and drama does a sterling job creating a character who is in many ways an objectionable, arrogant man covering up the hurt and unloved child within. Oscar-awarded Smith, now almost 80 and employing her trademark brittleness and supercilious manner to good effect creates a credible 92-year-old whilst Thomas, ever a favourite of mine, is perfect as the 60-something daughter who, like Mathias, and for connected reasons, has a mountain of past baggage and issues with her mother.  

A pleasant surprise is Dominic Pinon playing a real estate agent whose living quarters adds to the pleasure of seeing another side of Paris on screen. Real estate issues figure not only in the viager arrangement, but also in the plot thread of a greedy developer wanting to develop fancy hotels and so despoil the medieval heritage of the Marais neighbourhood, certainly an issue we can relate to here in Melbourne!

My Old Lady is a charming entertainment with a story that keeps us engaged and, best of all, some first class acting talent.




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