Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner. Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.
Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).
You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.
Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.
With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.
Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.
The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.