When a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged New Yorker named Mathias (Kevin Kline) inherits a sizeable Parisian apartment complete with a spacious backyard from his deceased father, it seems like his life is turning around.
That is, of course, until he travels to his newly inherited estate only to discover that Mathilde Girard, a wise and remarkably eloquent 90 year-old woman (Maggie Smith) still lives there; and if that wasn’t obstacle enough, the housing contract she lives under, a “viager”, not only grants her the right to reside in Mathias’s apartment until her death, but also a generous monthly pension, owed to her out of Mathias’s own pocket. As the film’s poster reads: “He’s in the will. She’s in the way.” It’s tricky.
This is the simple premise of playwright and screenwriter Israel Horowitz’s film directorial debut, an adaptation of his own stage play. Despite the simple setup, what the film reveals, of course, is that nothing is ever so simple, not housing contracts, not stubborn 90 year-old women, and certainly not the burden of secrets and relationships from decades ago surfacing. The film is certainly a drama, dotted with many dark family secrets, but it stands out as being a surprisingly charming 104 minutes, filled with twists and turns interposed with some touching moments of love and despair and some surprisingly moments of humor. The manner in which each new detail of the story was revealed slowly in layers was especially skillful and worked to give the film a refreshing sense of narrative and arch missing from many dramedies. Although a few of the emotional moments were drowning in their own despair a little too much, it never felt like the film was pushing for laughs, the comedy being handled in a very intelligent and delicate way.
My Old Lady includes an extraordinary performance from veteran actress Maggie Smith, who has deservedly earned herself a spot in a small category of leading ladies who are versatile and simply extraordinary; her speaking voice is seldom loud in this film, but she commands the complexity of her role with great power, consequently giving the text an elevated sense of sophistication (a lot of which is in French; Mathilde and her daughter Chloe banter bilingually). Kevin Kline also gives a solid performance as Mathias, breathing life and three-dimensionality into a role that could’ve easily been annoying and ridden with irritating clichés. Rounding out the main trio of characters is Kristin Scott Thomas as Mathilde’s daughter Chloe, a gem of an actress who proves that honest and genuine acting always wins. It was a joy watching all three of them earning our empathy and compassion.
Though much of the narrative takes place indoors, My Old Lady also exposes the magnificent splendor of Paris. More importantly, it does so the right amount, using the city’s unique aesthetic to compliment the film’s setting rather than appropriating it and shoving it down your throat in a Hollywood “this-film-takes-place-in-Paris-if-you-haven’t-noticed; here’s-an-aerial-shot-of-the-Eiffel-Tower-again” way. It is delicate balances like this that gives this film a refreshing edge one would only expect from a seasoned filmmaker. Horowitz expertly catalogues the story frame-by-frame, detail-by-detail with a great sense of direction and purpose. Add to that numerous great performances and the final product is a delightful nugget of a film that will be sure to please in unexpected ways.