Since his fetching 1996 feature debut The Whole Wide World, director Dan Ireland has suffered an extended slump. Sadly, this tepid dramatic comedy won't reverse the trend. The titular Mrs. Palfrey (Plowright) is a sweet- natured, lonely old widow who moves to a faded hotel in the center of London, ostensibly to enjoy her remaining years. Neglected by her living relatives, Mrs. Palfrey feels even more alienated from her idiosyncratic fellow residents, like cynical Mrs. Arbuthnot (Massey) and nosy nut Mrs. Post (Marcia Warren). After taking a bad spill, Mrs. Palfrey meets Ludovic Meyer (the Orlando Bloom--esque Friend), a charming young boho writer who agrees to impersonate her grandson. An intimate friendship is born.
Although the film is based on notable British author Elizabeth Taylor's acclaimed novel, you can feel Ireland struggling with the source material, trying to keep a balance between the light, wistful, vaguely romantic tone, and weightier themes concerning mortality, abandonment and the mild indignities of senescence. Despite the estimable talents of golden girl Plowright, whose Mrs. Palfrey is an elegant, refined woman raging against the dying of the light, the film is overlong and tries feebly to tug at the heartstrings. References to David Lean's Brief Encounter and the plays of Terence Rattigan might earn a chuckle—there are a few bright comic moments—but any comparison between these estimable works and Ireland's film is wishful thinking. (Opens Fri; Paris.)