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On the Silver (Haired) Screen

Must 60 be the new 40?

By Dorothy Woodend 27 Apr 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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'Mrs. Palfrey': a soothing fantasy.

At first, I thought the sea of grey heads milling about on Cambie Street were part of a riot, or some type of protest. But there was no shouting, no placards, no carrying on of any kind. The ladies in pearls, and the men in suits, were simply waiting to get into The Park Theatre to see Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith strut their Ladies in Lavender stuff. The scenario has become a familiar sight. You have to hand it to that grey fox, Leonard Schein -- he's tapped into a niche -- movies for seniors, silver cinema, call it what you will, The Park has become the theatre of the elderly. As the population gets older, entertainment that speaks to the experience of the aged is boffo box office. It's the thin edge of the silver wedge. And the most recent example is Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. The film is not new -- it was released in 2005 -- but it's got all the requisite things that the oldsters love: British ladies, stately homes, lovely scenery, a few moments of sadness and even more of sentiment.

The story begins when a 70-something widower named Mrs. Arthur Palfrey (Joan Plowright) lets a room in the Claremont Hotel in London. The story, written by novelist Elizabeth Taylor, was originally set in the 1950s, but the film's tiny budget couldn't recreate '50s London, so the setting was moved to present day. It probably makes little difference, since there are many places in the world where the '50s never really ended. (Simply take a gander at the Arbutus Lanes or the restaurant way up on top of The Bay in downtown Vancouver, if you don't believe me.) The Claremont is another of those tucked away places, content to puddle away its days in shabby gentility. As singer John Prine once observed, "Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder everyday. Old people just grow lonesome," and here that sentiment is in full faded flower.

Upon her arrival at the hotel, Mrs. Palfrey dresses carefully for dinner. When she enters the dining room, what does she observe but a still life arrangement? There is Mrs. Arbuthnot, crippled, but still acerbic; Mrs. Post, twittering and stuttering like a demented bird; two aging thespians, Mrs. De Salis and her son Willie, who sing sad show tunes together; and Mr. Osborne, a proper gentleman possessed of a stiff manner and an overt fondness for Irish whiskey. The hotel, and the people who call it home, have fused into one being; inside the walls, the people wile away the hours, play scrabble and eat solitary suppers.

The 'boo boos' of age

But while she may temporarily find herself among their company, Mrs. Palfrey isn't yet resigned to her fate. She remains philosophical and plucky, determined to find some small pleasure in this twilight place. Joan Plowright pulls out every fusty mannerism in her bag of tricks, and plays them all. Unfortunately, much of the story is thin ice beneath her feet. It threatens to buckle beneath sheer improbability.

While running errands (posting a letter and picking up a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover for Mrs. Arbuthnot) Mrs. Palfrey trips, falls, and lands in the lap of Prince Charming. His name is Ludovic Meyer, and he is the kind of creature that lives only in books: a roguishly charming young swain, smooth of skin, satiny of hair and unbuttoned of shirt. Ludovic takes her in, gives her a cup of tea and blows upon her booboo. Before your mind runs away with you, it's not what you think.

Or is it? The film goes to some lengths to instill a strange sexual tension between Ludo and "Mrs. P" (as he immediately dubs her). Depending on your sensibility, this quality can make you squirm in your seat, or, if you're a raunchy old lady think, "YAH baby!!" This is not a booming granny movie, despite the fact that it name checks Harold and Maude. The mischief that Mrs. Palfrey and her young man take up is decidedly innocent. A simple misunderstanding results in Ludovic being mistaken for her grandson, a fiction that Mrs. Palfrey simply lets slide. Her real grandson (a spotty heel of a fellow) never bothers to call or visit anyway. As the pair plays out their charade, some semblance of life returns to the still air of The Claremont and the residents get downright perky. Mr. Osborne even works up the brio to ask Mrs. Palfrey to marry him.

No Suzanne Somers senior sex

Everyone in the film is relentlessly, nay exhaustingly sweet, with the blunt exception of Mrs. Palfrey's daughter and real grandson, who are total shits. Really, Ludo is much more dreamy, with his exquisite manners and lovely singing voice. If you had your druthers, whom would you pick? Mrs. Palfrey being an imminently sensible woman, gives her genuine grandson the boot, and takes up with the cute (albeit fake) one. Their time together is filled with visits to castles, walks along the Thames, shared books and cups of tea -- everything is altogether pleasant.

The film is structured more or less like an old fashioned romance (except instead of a beau, you get a grandson) but there are two gentleman callers paying their respects to Mrs. Palfrey, and her second suitor is of a decidedly darker nature; death is patient but very persistent, and a girl can only put him off for so long. A good death is almost as important as a good life, and the film's romantic aspects are nowhere more evident than in its last moments. Like any love story, where the big pay off comes with a lover's surrender to passion, so too, the film's cathartic moment comes in the form of a different type of surrender. Death, where is thy sting? Not here, it is a gentle goodnight for Mrs. Palfrey, and really the old dame deserves it.

The one thing that films like Ladies in Lavender or Mrs. Palfrey have, in comparison to their shrill American counterparts (I don't think I shall ever get over the sight of Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson humping feebly in Something's Gotta Give) is the quality of life made slower, more thoughtful. What if you don't want 60 to be the new 40? What if you actually want to act your age? No more Suzanne Somers' senior sex, or exercising your brittle bones till they break. Why can't you simply be old and be done with it? The air of gentility that pervades British films, the small rituals of daily life -- the right kind of marmalade, the cups of tea that become as necessary as life's blood -- come with their own deep sense of comfort. Quiet rooms and distant voices provide the time to think about what it all means, without the constant, relentless gallop of trying to be something you're not. It's rather a relief after the media barrage that tries to convince older people that they ought to behave like younger people.

Fantasy of gracious decline

Old ladies in the movies have not had a terribly easy time; if they're there at all, they're usually ludicrous, or secondary to the action. But everyone wants to see themselves (and their experiences) reflected on screen. Imagine your alienation if almost every movie you saw starred 12-year-olds; wouldn't you pine for some whiny 30-somethings complaining about their mid-life crisis? I imagine that's how many 60, 70, or 80-year-old ladies feel. There is usually little for them on screen, until lately that is. It's an elderly moment. The grey-haired hit makers, the Zimmers, have made the rounds of YouTube with their version of The Who classic "My Generation," and the recent issue of the New Yorker features Atul Gawande's deeply thoughtful feature on the nature of aging. Another septuagenarian film, Away From Her, opens on Friday, May 4.

Away From Her, Sarah Polley's directorial debut, stars Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as Fiona and Grant, a couple married for 40 years, facing the onset of dementia. As Fiona's mind ebbs away, like someone walking through a huge house, gradually turning out all the lights, her husband is forced to face their collective history alone. The film is well made, but despite its pedigree and polish (it's based on a short story from Alice Munro), there is still an element of soft-pedalling the brutal realities of age. In this fashion, it shares the same fantasy of gracious decline, put forth by Mrs. Palfrey.

Underneath the sentiment, and soft focus of both films, some uncomfortable truth pokes through. The world goes on, but sometimes you just don't want to go with it any longer. Nowhere was this more evident than in the theatre itself. As the end credits rolled after Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, pairs of elderly ladies dotted about The Park Theatre, remaining seated. Maybe they were simply moving slowly, or maybe they just wanted to stay inside the film's fantasy: a place where old ladies have the last laugh, nasty relatives get what they deserve, and beautiful young men read them poetry as they slip away from the world. Really, who can blame them?

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