Israel Horovitz writes and directs My Old Lady, the screen adaptation of his own play. Kevin Kline stars as Mathias, an American who is thrilled to learn that he has inherited a prime piece of Parisian property, only to discover that it’s a ‘viager’ and French law means that the current occupant, 90 year old Mathilde (Maggie Smith) and her middle-aged daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) can remain there until Mathilde dies. To make matters worse, the cash-strapped Mathias must pay the old lady two thousand euros each month. This sets off a sequence of events that uncovers a lot of hidden secrets for both families.
Adapting a stage play for the screen is often a tricky proposition. Plays tend to rely on one location while cinema likes to open things up visually and therefore can often feel restricted if its locked into one location. However, Horovitz makes My Old Lady work because the plot revolves around the apartment at the centre of Mathias and Mathilde’s battle of wills. We get to see Mathias’ excursions to a local estate agent to negotiate the apartment’s 12 million euro sale and we follow him as he pilfers and sells some of Mathilde’s antique furniture.
The key to My Old Lady’s success is Kevin Kilne’s performance as Mathias. He carefully balances the comedy and drama and you can’t help but have empathy for him, even when he’s verging on being diabolical as a character. Maggie Smith plays her usually crotchety self, spitting out barbed quips and sage advice in equal measure. However, Kristin Scott Thomas is given less to do and her role often feels like an unnecessary addition.
Israel Horovitz’s film is an enjoyable comedy-drama that may just be a little darker than most would anticipate. It’s a well crafted piece but it never really moves into top gear. The comedy isn’t sharp enough and the drama is never too dramatic to make it feel essential. There’s a lack of urgency to the on-screen action, but it works as a relaxed piece of lazy afternoon viewing.
My Old Lady comes with an entertaining question and answer session with Israel Horovitz.