"Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is the kind of film the phrase "little gem" was made for.
There's nothing big about it. No flamboyant gestures. Not a hint of physical violence. Not really that many doubts about how it will eventually wind up.
And compared with most of the edgier, more indy-oriented fare that's been making its way to the Emerging Cinema screen, "Mrs. Palfrey" is conventional to an extreme.
There's not a hand-held camera or a jump cut to be seen. It's just a story, and a marvelous cast of British actors.
Director Dan Ireland (co-founder of the Seattle International Film Festival, whose directing credits include "The Whole Wide World," "The Velocity of Gary" and "Passionada") recognizes that and runs with it.
The story is Elizabeth Taylor's (no, that THAT Liz, but the writer who died in 1975, four years after the book was published). Taylor's work is often compared with Jane Austen's, and it's easy to see why.
The film doesn't stray far from the book, with its storyline of a widow who moves into a London retirees hotel, hoping to be near her grandson. He ignores her, but she falls -- literally -- into the world of a twentyish writer/busker. And if her grandson won't come, he'll play the part.
That's it, really, with the subsequent twists spinning off that story line.
It's a true love -- not lust -- story. But what makes it work is its cast, particularly Joan Plowright -- aka Lady Olivier, Laurence's widow.
She's been a significant actress in her own right, particularly on the British stage, for over 50 years. Plowright carries the film with a mixture of dignity and wit, capturing the strength of a woman searching for something more while refusing to lock herself inside the claustrophobic community of retirees at the hotel.
A book of Wordsworth is her nighttime companion, and she won't let her life devolve into a circle of watching television and the other residents.
Much of the film's fun comes from those residents, a veteran cast of British stage, TV and film character actors whose credits range from treading the boards with Olivier himself to episodes of "The Avengers" and "Doctor Who."
There's Anna Massey, the arthritic praying mantis looming over the lunch room and keeping Marcia Warren, the hypercurious gossip magazine reader, in check. Robert Lang, who died two weeks after shooting ended, is the would-be lady's man with the manner of a retired British army man, and Timothy Bateson, the knobby, aging doorman.
Rupert Friend, Plowright's co-star as the writer, is the final piece. He's suitably understated, which is to say he doesn't get in the way. The same can be said of Zoe Tapper, the other younger figure in the film.
Friend has the looks to play the role as the attractive younger man, while also maintaining a sensitivity that makes the friendship with Plowright believable.
As with the best of Austen's writings, it's the asides and observations about society that give the story its wit as well as its depth (in one piece of updating, the retirees' favorite TV program is "Sex and the City").
Here it's observations on love and friendship, and how people can make their own family when their own fails them. It the kind of thing that could have been turned into a Hallmark TV special, but there's enough bitter mixed in with the sweet that it's more than that.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Starring Joan Plowright, Rupert Friend, Zoe Tapper, Anna Massey, Robert Lang, Marcia Warren, Georgina Hale and Millicent Martin, directed by Dan Ireland.
105 minutes; not rated, but perhaps a PG equivalent for bare backs rolling on a bed.