'My Old Lady' deftly juggles somber, silly and sweet
At first, "My Old Lady" seems to just have a twinkle in its eye, but the film takes on some surprising heft as it moves along.
Kevin Kline stars as Mathias Gold, an aimless fellow approaching 60 who inherits an apartment in Paris when his estranged father passes. Figuring he should be able to sell the place for a fortune, he arrives in the city with a small bag and big dreams.
But when he walks into the apartment, Mathias finds an old British woman named Mathilde (Maggie Smith) living there. What's worse is, thanks to an arcane real estate agreement, the woman has the right to inhabit the apartment until her death — and the broke Mathias has to pay her a few thousand euros a month for the eventual rights to the place.
Having nowhere to go, Mathias moves into an upstairs bedroom. He discovers Mathilde's daughter, Chloe (Kristen Scott Thomas), also lives there and is none too happy to make his acquaintance.
Mathias begins looking for a way to sell his rights to the apartment without having actually acquired the property yet. He scrounges up some pocket money by selling off assorted furniture he finds in the place's unused rooms, and the film looks well on its way to being a light comedy about people forced to bond together by awkward circumstances.
But writer-director Israel Horovitz, adapting his own play, has some more somber turns in mind. While the contrast between Kline's breeziness and Smith's ever-proper demeanor hovers over everything, the story introduces tales of suicide, long-burning infidelity, ruined childhoods, alcoholism and a hint of incest. Instead of building to one-big-happy-family smiles in an obvious way, the movie meanders past some very dark alleys.
Which gives these three fine actors something stronger to work with. Smith, whose prim upper-class caricature sets the tone for TV's "Downton Abbey," gets to move far beyond well-timed "harrumphs" as Mathilde lays out her past triumphs and failures, while Kline digs down effectively into the wounded Mathias. And Scott Thomas, who has been starring in both French and English films for quite a while now, somehow manages to make the damaged Chloe more than a prisoner of circumstance and inertia; indeed, she becomes a somewhat sexy survivor.
The expected twinkle never really leaves "My Old Lady," but it certainly goes through some rough times along the way. And the film is all the more interesting as a result.
'My Old Lady'
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual references
Running time: 107 minutes