Ricky Young takes a look at Michael Caine’s multi-generational dalliance with some French popsy, a film which sounds like it should be the worst thing in the world, but somehow isn’t.
Matthew Morgan (Caine) lost his beloved wife three years ago, and has done little but mark – and increasingly resent – the time left to him ever since. A retired philosophy professor from Maine (in this case saddling Sir Michael with a wildly inept and distracting accent), he wanders the streets of Paris, still having conversations with his now-absent wife, occasionally munching on a baguette that makes you fear for the strength of his bridgework.
One day he bumps into a young dance instructor, Pauline (Clémence Poésy), on a bus, and they strike up a tentative friendship – she has something of his wife about her, he fills her need for a father figure. Luckily for everyone involved, we’re not quite into Zach Braff-esque Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory here – there’s not ever a hint of Sir Michael’s aged genitals rising from their lair like some sort of unholy grey squid – but over time, the two tease each other out of their mutual states of unfocused loss with something approaching real-life tenderness.
Over quite a bit of time, it has to be said. Adapted from a French novel by German director Sandra Nettelbeck, the first hour takes its own sweet aeon as the two circle each other – in less sure hands, thirty minutes of running-time could be shaved off by a quick, traditional getting-to-know-you montage (Mr Morgan at a fair in a park, getting candy-floss on his nose! Pauline stealing Mr Morgan’s hat and hiding it until he explodes in demented rage! That first, almost-accidental hand-hold!) but the fifty years between them is too big a gap to easily cross without watching them getting it all a bit wrong before they begin to get it right.
One act of sadness on Mr. Morgan’s part too far, however, has his family show up – son Miles (Justin Kirk out of tv’s Weeds) and daughter Karen (Gillian Anderson out of tv’s everything) – and here the film changes tack, with the pair as concerned and annoying and selfish and loving and infuriating as families generally are, and we move into more strained territory as both want to know a) more about their father’s lonely circumstances and b) quite why he’s got this attractive local ditz on his coat-tails.
She’s no ditz, really. She’s just a bit beaten-down, like many of us are, and certainly less fucked-up than Mr Morgan’s skittish brood. His fatherly skills have never been fully tested, as his goddess of a wife took care of as much of that aspect of his life as it appears she did to the rest of it.
Miles is confused and angry, for various reasons we slowly come to learn, and the film spends the rest of its time concentrating on what people who know each other and love each other don’t say to each other, not for artificial dramatic reasons, but because people can spend their entire lives not telling each other how they feel, out of shame, cowardice, protection, strength and a million other reasons that don’t make any sense in the slightest. Some of it doesn’t make sense here, but at least it feels real, if often annoying. Because people you love can be annoying, but it doesn’t make them, or your love for them, any less real.
This film is very long, and Michael Caine is very old. We spend nearly every scene with him, and we feel his age. Almost every character ends up with a bit of what they want, if not exactly in the way they wanted it, which is, again, generally how life plays out. Loose ends remain loose. Broken things stay broken. Things you should say don’t get said. Hearts break.
There’s one moment where he tells the image of his dead love that ‘This…this isn’t how I wanted it all to be…’ and because it’s this character and this actor, you believe him. The regret drips from the screen. But when are things all ever how you wanted them to be?
I got up from the film desperately wanting to phone my dad. I didn’t, mainly because I’m a fucking idiot.
But I might today.
Mr Morgan’s Last Love is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
Ricky Young is, for better or worse, on The Tweeter.