Film review: Elsa & Fred

David Gritten / 29 April 2015

Saga's film critic, David Gritten watches two great veteran actors going through their paces in Elsa & Fred, a late-life romance.

It’s a delicate business, crafting a romantic comedy between two people who are advanced in years. You don’t want to make it too sugary-sweet, or patronise old people; and it’s futile to deny that ageing brings its own problems – health issues, loneliness, and sometimes a resistance to acknowledging that new upheavals in life can be delightful. A minefield, in other words.

British writer-director Michael Radford (Il Postino, White Mischief) manages to negotiate these hurdles in Elsa & Fred, a slight but charming story about a couple thrown together by circumstance in their twilight years.

Fred is a grouchy widower of 80 who respected but never much liked his late wife, and now looks back on his life regretfully. He gets tired easily, and would mostly prefer to stay in his apartment. Elsa is a life-affirming character, a flamboyant, slightly eccentric woman with a tenuous notion of the truth – she claims to have been painted by Picasso, and fabricates certain facts about her family. And is she really only 74, as she claims? Fred moves in next door to her in a New Orleans apartment block. She takes a fancy to him, grouchiness and all – and spends the rest of the film running rings around him.

An odd-couple story, then. So far, so cute. And potentially, so limited. But Radford had the good sense to cast two great veteran actors who elevate this material with their performances. As Fred, the excellent Christopher Plummer, whose initial sulkiness gradually melts in the face of Elsa’s overtures; this allows Fred to exhibit a breezy charm in the story’s second half – and few actors do charm more assuredly than Plummer.

Elsa is a somewhat over-the-top character, and who better than Shirley MacLaine to play over-the-top? She can easily divide opinion in this, her late career - even between roles. I found her largely grating in Downton Abbey, but here the role of the dotty, impish Elsa fits her like a glove. Together she and Plummer carry the film with what may look like minimal effort, but is actually consummate professionalism.

Radford, writing with Anna Pavignano, has adapted the story from an Argentinian film of the same name. Its premise is identical, and in both versions Elsa expresses a devout wish to cavort in the Fontana di Trevi in Rome, as Anita Ekberg did in Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita, under the watchful eye of Marcello Mastroianni.  

The chemistry between the two leads carries the day, but there’s also sterling support from a fine, experienced cast: Marcia Gay Harden as Fred’s daughter, Chris Noth (Mr. Big in Sex and the City) as her greedy, unscrupulous husband, George Segal as Fred’s doctor friend and Scott Bakula as Elsa’s concerned son.

It wouldn’t do to make any great claims for Elsa & Fred, but it’s modest, likable – and Plummer and MacLaine make the title characters enjoyable company.

It’s on release in cinemas this weekend, and available on DVD from Monday.

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