my-old-ladyVeteran playwright, Israel Horovitz (Author, Author!) brings his celebrated stage play My Old Lady to the big screen starring Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas. Armed with a character-driven script and a trio of top-notch actors, Horovitz’s first venture into narrative film-making is quite successful, if at times a bit verbose for the screen.

Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is certainly more of an unsympathetic than relatable character, not the typical anti-hero but more of a self-pitying man-child struggling to land somewhere in the world where he might just disappear. The perfect opportunity presents itself when he inherits an apartment in Paris after the passing of his father, with whom he had had a strained relationship. When Mathias arrives to stake his claim, he finds that the property was purchased by his late father as a Viager. Under the law, a viager requires that the purchaser make a down payment on the property and then continue to pay monthly installments while the seller remains resident in the space until the time of the seller’s death.  Much to his chagrin, Mathias comes to find 94 year old Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) happily residing in his newly inherited flat. Also in residence is Mathilde’s daughter, Chloe Girard (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The unfolding story is amusing, witty, painful and universal in its thematic structure. Both Mathias and Chloe are plagued by the wounds of childhood, but Mathias is far less at peace with the hand he has been dealt. A recovering alcoholic, Mathias falls deeply back into his addictive patterns when Mathilde’s wine collection proves too difficult for him to resist.

This is a film that digs deeply at the heart of the human psyche and the recessed places in the mind that have remained frozen in time. Mathias is no more a grown man than his wounded child will allow him to be, and his suffering is tragically wasteful. A character that might be easily dismissed as pathetic becomes remarkably lovely in the hands of Kevin Kline. Kline has been both celebrated and maligned in his career for his bawdy emotional range. But it is the nuance here that Kline gives to Mathias that makes this performance compelling. Maggie Smith is as lovable and brilliant as always. She finds the lover, the humor and the life in Mathilde. A woman who has every reason to be bitter, Smith chooses to make Mathilde anything but.

Kristin Scott Thomas handles Chloe with strength and grace. One had only hoped for a bit more of this character to be drawn out especially because the actress is so utterly watchable.

What the film lacks is a visual drive, which may just be the fault of moving stage to screen.  Because we spend so much time in the apartment, we do not experience Paris at all.  And because the main characters are British and American, there seems to be no real reason for the location except for the binding viager agreement that might be hard to find anywhere else in the world.

A true art house film, My Old Lady is well worth a trip to the theatre. After a few laughs and few tears later, you may find yourself in a coffee house in deep discussion, which is certainly a lovely way to spend an evening.