There isn’t much by the way of ambition in Israel Horovitz’ cinematic debut. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film. On the contrary, it is enamoured with charming performances, a nicely balanced tone, and the lasting warmth of the Parisian sun. However, with a screenplay that strictly refuses to deviate from overdramatic convention, My Old Lady leaves you feeling oddly cold more often than it should.
Also acting as screenwriter, and adapting the script from his 2012 Broadway play, Horovitz’s tale concerns Mathias (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his-luck yank who’s on the wrong side of 50. When his father dies and leaves him an apartment in Paris, Mathias up sticks and head’s for the French capital in the hope of a quick sell that will give him the funds to start over. However, when he arrives, he finds a quirky English dowager (Maggie Smith) and her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) residing in his inherited home under a “viager” tenancy, which immediately scuppers his plans.
Obviously drawing on what he knows, Horovitz orchestrates much of his film as if it were a play. The majority of the story takes place within the apartment, with much of it drawn out over a series of extended scenes. Some simmer pleasantly, particularly early on where Smith’s innate ability to deliver a scaldingly hilarious putdown agreeably contrasts with Kline’s amusingly embittered persona.
Regularly though the film feels over boiled, the writer/director’s indulgence for theatricality shining through more often than it should. There are lots of sentimental wails, more than a few tears, and a ceaseless supplement of ridiculous narrative twists to ensure the melodrama keeps on bubbling. But despite the heated atmosphere, much of it leaves you feeling chilly. The frustrating predictability desensitising you from the action as it continues to unfold.
It is all, however, carried off with great aplomb. Horovitz’s direction may lack the touch of an assured auteur, but it’s full of heart. His camera, held in the safe hands of Michel Amathieu, drifts across the tranquil Parisian landscape with a romanticised awe that’s imbued with the dulcet tones of Mark Orten’s gentle score. His dialogue is sprinkled with a soft humour that balances the many moments of dewy-eyed tenderness. And it’s all carried off with a host of pleasing performances, from both the leads and support, with Dominique Pinon notably lighting up the screen whenever he’s on it as Mathias’ real estate advisor.
There isn’t enough substance for My Old Lady to be anything more than a passing joy. Shakespeare was noted as once saying that all the world’s a stage, unfortunately Horovitz can’t help but treat it as one.