Starring: Michael Caine, Clemence Poesy, Justin Kirk, Gillian Anderson
Director: Sandra Nettelbeck
Well into the sixth decade of his career, Michael Caine can still surprise. Here he sports an American accent and (for part of the film) a woolly beard to play a Waspish, intellectual widower living in Paris, where he seems to have become stranded, without being able to speak the lingo, after the death of his beloved wife.
Assuming he’s all alone in the world, the childlike Pauline (Clemence Poesy), a dance instructor and inveterate people-fixer, takes him under her wing, and under her influence this stern old oak of a man begins to put forth a few green shoots of joy and frivolity.
Not the likeliest turn of events, perhaps. Yet Sandra Nettelbeck’s film (adapted from a novel by Francoise Dorner) pulls you in with its subdued, melancholy sense of humour and the wintry prettiness of the Parisian locations. Even the Shall We Dance moments, when Pauline gets Caine’s Matthew Morgan doing the cha-cha, come off as charmingly awkward rather than sickly and contrived – after all, this isn’t oily Richard Gere strutting his stuff, this is Michael Caine, who’s walked with a hobble since he was in his twenties. And just when you’re afraid it’s taking a turn into mushy sentiment, the film goes the other way, broadening out in a wry, sharp-tongued family drama with a bitter edge.
Matthew’s children Miles (Justin Kirk) and Karen (Gillian Anderson) arrive in Paris to check up on him – a shock for Pauline, who had thought she was playing the role of the daughter he never had. Seeing how brusque he is with his offspring, she begins to realize that Matthew isn’t quite the sweet old man she imagined, and that he’s not as warm and easygoing with everyone as he is with her.
Justin Kirk (Weeds) isn’t given a whole lot to do but scowl and hint that he’s a chip off the old block, but Anderson serves up another one of her brilliant scene-stealing cameos as his shallow yet plugged-in sister. As for Poesy’s Pauline, it’s tempting to write her off as another redemptive fantasy figure like the one she played in In Bruges, but the script fights against this by making it clear that her compassion amounts to a complex. Nurturing to a fault, worrying about others at the expense of herself, she drifts aimlessly through her own life and goes home in the evenings to a squalid rat-hole of a flat. Even with that underpinning, it’s a tough role to pull off convincingly, but Poesy wins you over with her frail-as-a-ray-of-winter-sunshine beauty.
Hiding behind the accent and the beard, Caine seems to be in incognito for the first part of the film, which only adds to the sense that this is a man who has put up walls behind walls. There’s a surprise in seeing him cast as the brainy type, a man of the mind. He responds with a flinty turn – his retired philosophy professor speaks with an almost chilly detachment about his own situation and views on life, yet he’s as human as the rest of us, and not above being flattered by the attention of a pretty girl, or becoming almost piggy-eyed with hatred when the party is spoiled by Miles and Karen. Can he genuinely not move on from the death of his wife, or is he holding onto his grief as a way of pushing people away? The film hinges around that question, and Caine’s performance offers no easy answers.
Mr Morgan’s Last Love plays like a more downbeat version of Merchant Ivory’s La Divorce – it has the same quizzical, detached tone and bitter-sweet combination of Americans-in-Paris comedy and skeletons clattering out of closets. Mortality looms over it, and it’s touchingly acute on the loneliness and isolation of old age and the bleakness of blighted relationships. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a very sad film, but it’s well worth checking out by those with a high tolerance for melancholy.