Mr. Morgan's Last Love: Locarno Review

"Mr. Morgan's Last Love"
A dramatically unbalanced story of friendship and parenting troubles.

Michael Caine plays a widower who strikes up a friendship with Clemence Poesy's young French dance teacher in Sandra Nettelbeck's adaptation of a novel by Francoise Dorner.

LOCARNO -- Michael Caine and Clemence Poesy make for an odd but sweet pair in Mr. Morgan’s Last Love, a dramatically unbalanced adaptation of Francoise Dorner’s novel La Douceur Assassine.

Gillian Anderson and Justin Kirk co-star as the recalcitrant if theoretically grown-up children of Caine’s Matthew Morgan, a Princeton philosophy professor who’s retired and has been living alone in Paris since the death of his wife (Jane Alexander, who occasionally appears as a vision). His offspring even cancels their plans for their annual visit but are forced to show up anyway when Mr. Morgan decides to end it all, something, oddly enough, triggered by meeting a wonderful young local woman, Pauline (Poesy), who teaches at a dance school.

Sold to most European territories and the U.S., where Image Entertainment will release it in October, Mr. Morgan has also been making the festival rounds, powered by the arthouse-light bona fides of German director Sandra Nettelbeck (Mostly Martha, Helen) and the star power of its international cast. It should appeal to older audiences.

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The main problem of Mr. Morgan’s Last Love is a structural one, as it is really two films in one. In the first story, which roughly takes up the first half, Mr. Morgan wallows in his grief until he literally bumps into Pauline on a bus and the two strike up an unexpected friendship. The screenplay, written by the director, is very observant here and neatly (if occasionally barely) devoid of clichés, something even echoed in the score of the first half-hour, a gentle theme from composer Hans Zimmer with a spark of youth and hope to it. 

But the dynamics of the couple’s unusual friendship change when, after a suicide attempt, Matthew’s adult children, Miles (Kirk) and Joan (Anderson) show up at the hospital. Both don't want to be there and are somewhat acid-tongued, with Joan remarking: "An overdose is not my favorite excuse to come to Paris but thanks for making an effort, Dad" and a puzzled Miles saying about Pauline, who’s in her twenties: "She’s our future stepmother for all I know."

It's clear he hasn't been much of a father to them and they resent him for being far away from them as well. They are also unsure what to make of the jolie blonde who seems to hang out with their father a lot but this uncertainty also extends to the film itself, as the Pauline/Matthew relationship has to make way for something less straightforward when Miles decides to stay in Paris and trash out his issues with his father.

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Though the story employs a facile shortcut to turn things into a neat triangle in which Pauline and Miles also need to spend time together, this subplot never convinces. There are also too few thematic parallels between the relationships the titular protagonist has with his son and surrogate-daughter of sorts, so it almost feels like the film splits into two separate stories in the second half. And some of the meatiest dramatic material, including the idea Mr. Morgan wants to end his life because he has met someone as nice as Pauline, is only summarily explored.

Caine, whose American accent is about as steady as his character’s relationship with his offspring, is otherwise an engaging presence. And though she's not convincing as a dance teacher, the open-faced Poesy (Fleur Delacour from the Harry Potter films) has nice chemistry with Caine. Kirk (Angels of America) sleepwalks through much of the film while Anderson relishes her glorified cameo with some of the film’s most bitingly witty lines.

Shot on location in Paris and St. Malo, Brittany, with interiors done in Belgium and Germany (the main co-producing countries), the film looks fine on what must have been a modest budget. Costume designer Maira Ramedhan Levi dresses Pauline in a series of see-through blouses that give the kind-hearted girl a strange Lolita-ish vibe, while Zimmer's score becomes more predictable as the action develops.  

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)

Production companies: Bavaria Pictures, Kaminski Stiehm Film, Senator Film, A-Films, Eberhard Mueller Filmproduktion, MMLL, Scope Pictures, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Elzevir Films
Cast: Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Justin Kirk, Gillian Anderson, Michele Godet, Jane Alexander
Writer-Director: Sandra Nettelbeck, screenplay based on the novel
La Douceur Assassine by Françoise Dorner
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Philipp Kreuzer, Helge Sasse, Ulrich Stiehm
Director of photography: Michael Bertl
Production designer: Stanislas Reydelet
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan Levi
Editor: Christoph Strothjohann
Sales: Global Screen
Not yet rated, 116 minutes.