Maggie Smith in My Old Lady.Maggie Smith in My Old Lady.

My Old Lady
Director: Israel Horovitz
Starring: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith
107 mins; Class 12;
Eden Cinema Release

In France there is a quaint – if complicated – real estate arrangement known as the viager, in which a buyer purchases a property, yet pays a monthly fee to the seller in lieu of a lump sum.

The buyer thus forgoes the right to occupy said property until the seller’s death. For the buyer’s heirs, however, this can turn a simple inheritance into a years-long ordeal if the seller is in good health.

Which is what Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) discovers. Aged 57, broke and with three failed marriages behind him, Mathias believes his luck has changed when, on the death of his estranged father, he inherits a spacious Paris apartment.

His dreams of selling the property to finally obtain financial stability soon come crashing around his ears when he discovers the apartment comes complete with a 90-something lodger Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) who, by right, can live there until she dies.

There is also her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Mathias enters into a tentative lodging agreement with the pair until he can find a way around the complex system and cash in on his inheritance.

But the living arrangements are fraught with the clashes between Mathias and Chloé. Things get even more complicated for Mathias when some long-buried family secrets come to the fore.

There are times when the story betrays its stage origins

My Old Lady is the debut feature of director Israel Horovitz, a celebrated playwright here adapting his own hit play for the big screen.

Horovitz commendably takes the action away from the one room in which the play is set, expanding scenes to include the various rooms in the large apartment and taking in some familiar Paris landmarks and atmospheric side streets on the way.

However, there are times when the story betrays its stage origins. It is reined in considerably, however, thanks to the three leads who are at the top of their game.

Kevin Kline gives a nuanced performance as Mathias, a man who is a bit of a loser and doesn’t really endear himself to people, often coming across as rather unlikable, due to his penchant for self-pity and his bullying behaviour towards Chloé.

Yet, the actor captures this man’s vulnerabilities and struggles in a hugely sympathetic way. Kline also gets to show off his singing capabilities when, on overhearing a young soprano rehearsing by the river, he delightfully joins in with her for an impromptu duet.

Mathias is a broken man, who really has no-one to blame but himself for his lot in life.

There is little sign of Smith slowing down, the 80-year-old on top form as the feisty Mathilde. The actress is sublime, whether trading barbs with Gold or reminiscing with a touch of regret on her flawed past.