This film brings a wide smile with its clear cut eccentricity, British smarts and it also packs a neat dramatic punch as the weight of the story rolls forward more successfully than the chugging van within the movie. It succeeds because it’s not so over the top, well yes it can be but the grounded reality on which it’s based makes this preposterous plot very plausible.
Margaret or Mary Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) has a textured background to put it mildly, this all leads her to live in the confines of a van that she pulls up to Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town. To avoid payments and peeved neighbours, playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) lets her stay in his driveway, not knowing she’ll reside in that spot for 15 years.
Based on the dry and clever musings of British writer Alan Bennett, this films screenplay is soaring with perfect ideas and execution. It’s got that theatrical element from his play of the same name but it works so beautifully as a film too. The writing of the lady in question is so detailed and pronounced that as a spectator you cannot help but buy into Mrs Shepherd and believe the kind of person she is. This constant relatable aspect with her and most other characters adds such stable interpolation throughout the narrative.
Bennett’s screenplay deals with his own personality also and as you’d expect, it is done really well. I don’t see how it could have gone any other way when a writer is writing about them and what they know, so that internal thread is poetry in motion. I adore ideas about the craftsmanship of stories so this film had me from the moment you realise Alan Bennett is talking to version of himself as he battles with the thoughts of writing the life of Mary/Margaret. Life imitating art and vice versa is a prominent theme in this movie and the last minute of the movie is so brilliant in demonstrating that running trend.
I can see how people will dislike the movie, it does feel slow in places and the journey to finding out just who this lady in the van is begins waning. Also others out there might not like how the writers perspective starts overshadowing the Shepherd’s story but I disagree mostly. I truly feel they counter balance each other so well and their individual plots work together in furthering them as characters. As mentioned I love ideas about writing, feelings and self in motion, so it artfully and wittily ticks the boxes for me.
Nicholas Hytner directs this and has Bennett experience on his resume to help sell the character studying juiciness of this movie. The look of 70’s London helps define the period and with Hytner’s keen eye for detail it feels as if we’re somehow watching a theatrical presentation unfold on screen. The weightier moments of her mysterious background are commendable as he directs the flashbacks with enough intrigue to not wholly finish the portrait of who she is. This makes the darker parts of the film in her past returning much more alarming amongst all the lovely Brit tomfoolery of peacocks, cake in yellow paint and motherly writings.
Maggie Smith is terrific, absolutely terrific. She’s played this role twice before, for the stage and for radio and with that background she hones this role to sheer perfection as the vagrant lady with grumbling moods, wry smiles and troubling experiences comes richly to life. I hope to see her nominated in the field of awards seasons around the bend as she is tremendous in this part. Alex Jennings may as well be Alan Bennett, he looks and sounds like the man and the way he moves himself is effortless. The sharp tang in the dialogue he says or the knowing glances he gives to…himself all make this mildly introverted meek man satisfyingly believable. Additionally the fans of Bennett’s History Boys will be happy to see that the cast crop up through the film from Russell Tovey to Dominic Cooper.
More than a quaint film, this is a lovely character exploration with that bonus of British wit and writing brains. This human connection and story telling blend works well and I think I love the film.