A film about a writer Alan Bennett caring for his demented mother and a homeless woman in a van who resides in his driveway for 15 years is hardly the stuff of box office success but nonetheless a refreshing and welcome break from the Hollywood blockbusters and the violence of Respect or of Mexican drug gangs. I enjoyed it immensely. It showcased the best of British writing by Alan Bennett, directing by Nicholas Hytner and acting, Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour and Jim Broadbent.
For those unfamiliar with it, the story is of an old cantankerous bedraggled vagrant who pitches up in her decrepit van in the road in Camden Town where Alan Bennett lives and after it seems her van will be removed Alan Bennett agrees that she can move into his driveway temporarily where she stays for 15 years. The film details their relationship in that humourous whimsical way in which Bennett specialises. It will resonate with those of us who have had to care for the elderly and those crucial but diffcult situations of whether a care home is more suitable , the interfering social worker, the neighbours that affect concern and humanty but really want such a smelly vagrant out and off. Alan Bennett is not some latterday saint but rather offers the only option reluctantly and is frequently irritated by her presence and conduct. He always though maintains her dignity by calling her “Mrs Bishop” and she in turn addresses him as “Mr. Bennett”.
As with most plays and films I have seen by Alan Bennett whimsy and humour can be a substitute for narration. Not a great deal happens but there is a back story. The only element which did not really work is there are two Alan Bennetts, the one that goes outside and confronts the lady and the other writing at his desk. The idea is that writing is a solitary occupations so writers speak to themelves . Tom Hardy played both Krays so maybe this is a current trend but not one which added much to this film. Maggie Smith’s performance was a tour de force. Over the years she has played the role of the witty, eccentric, loopy lady to the point of being type cast but in this she is effective for the role and droll lines. The description of Alan Bennett is apposite of her in his witty satire of the sixties Forty Years On when he wrote in a pastiche of John Buchan’s novels “a genius, but like so many crosses that thin line that separates lunacy from insanity” Alex Jennings captures his gentle diffidence of Bennett well, his acute powers of social observance and his ability to conjure a story from the unlikeliest of sources. James Corden, Frances de la Tour , Roger Allam as neighbours and the sinister Jim Broadbent all deliver cameo roles.
I detest the smugness of the description “a national treasure” but I cannot find better words to describe the talent of Bennett. In the sixties from a Yorkshire background he brilliantly satirised the English public school without ever experiencing it. Moving south he did not like say Michael Parkinson or Roy Hattersley become a professional Yorkshireman Or indeed become type cast in his writings . I can say he is a very nice man from a personal anecdote. My brother stopped him once in Camden Town and said:
“Mr Bennett, I don’t stop people normally in the street but I would like you to know that my wife and I are keen theatre goers and over the years you have brought us much pleasure.”
Bennett looked at him for amount of time, my brother thought perhaps he had been too familiar, then replied:
“It’s not Mr Bennett, it’s Alan …”
He then spoke for some time how valuable it is to have audience reaction as the obvious gauge is the critics. I don’t suppose he recalls the meeting but my brother and I do.