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Elsa & Fred DVD Review

Elsa & Fred DVD coverDirector: Michael Radford

Starring: Shirley Maclaine, Christopher Plummer, Scott Bakula, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth, Erika Alexander, George Segal, Wendell Pierce, James Brolin

Cert: 12

Running Time: 93 mins

The elderly have been getting a pretty raw deal from the media in recent years. Seemingly every film, TV show or advert will tolerate them, as long as they’re taking off their cardigans, putting down their cups of tea and doing everything they can to act like “the youth”. Growing old disgracefully has never been so popular, so it was with trepidation that I approached ELSA & FRED, a remake of a European film about an elderly pair stoking the embers of love against the recurring visual backdrop of Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA.

Starring Shirley Maclaine and Christopher Plummer, arguably a more promising combination than most, and directed by Michael Radford (who brought us such diverse delights as IL POSTINO and 1984), it has a strong pedigree from which to start reworking the material. You quickly realize these elements are the garnish on an otherwise unremarkable tale, but the presence of the leads in particular go a long way to making the movie tolerable.

Elsa is the free spirit of the title, listening to rap music in her car and obsessed with rewatching the film-within-a-film’s notorious fountain scene featuring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg. Fred is the curmudgeonly widower who’s been moved to an apartment by his family to get him closer to them in his so-called hour of need. Guess who he ends up next door to? The initially odd couple are brought together by the wranglings of their grown-up children after Maclaine inadvertently backs her vehicle into Plummer’s son in law’s headlights. The pursuit of money is something both characters’ offsprings are adept at, from his daughter seeking investment for a bizarre spectacles-based scheme to her deluded artist son wanting a loan for his exhibition. Through this circumstance a full-blown romance blossoms between Elsa and Fred, though the way it happens is probably the script’s key failing.

As you’d expect, Maclaine and Plummer give good performances, she in particular ensuring her potentially aggravating fantasist is likeable from the off. However their chemistry together didn’t really spark for this reviewer. Initially she does the wooing, and bearing in mind her predicament (she has a terminal illness) you can see why she wants to grab life by the lapels. It’s Fred’s side of the equation that doesn’t ring true. Plummer is perhaps too sedate an actor for the scenario to catch fire. In fairness his role is that of a man who’s been ground down by years of loveless marriage, but his sudden transformation into a giddy schoolboy type didn’t convince me. Also the relationship is driven on by his flouncing off on various pretexts, which after the first instance becomes tiresome.

There’s the requisite whimsical jazz soundtrack and some scenes where the lovers stick it to the sneering younger generations, in addition to acts of civil disobedience such as skipping a restaurant bill, that you’ve seen variations on many times before. Radford is a steady pair of hands here, but as the action moves to Rome it has all the atmosphere of an adjunct of the movie’s main New Orleans location – quite a feat bearing in mind the sumptuous source material ELSA & FRED constantly refers to. The supporting cast is decent, with Marcia Gay Harden making the most of her part as Plummer’s shrill but sensitive daughter, married to a whiny entrepreneur (Chris Noth). But there’s no-one here you can get interested in or care about.

The very end of the film contains a touching moment relating to a yarn Maclaine spun about herself that may or may not have been fact, and the project is helped considerably by the talent involved. But at the end of the day they’re all just cruising along in a feature that could have done with a dash of spice in the confection. For a movie about rediscovering life, ELSA & FRED is surprisingly dead on its feet.

[usr=2] ELSA & FRED is released on DVD & Blu-ray on May 4th


Steve is a journalist and comedian who enjoys American movies of the 70s, Amicus horror compendiums, Doctor Who, Twin Peaks, Naomi Watts and sitting down. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.

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