Director: Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, The Madness of King George)
Screenplay: Alan Bennett
Starring: Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent
Length: 1 hour 44 minutes
It’s London in the 1970s and playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) has moved into a
nice, upper middle class street in Camden. Striking an odd appearance amongst the neat terrace houses is a homeless lady who goes by the name of Miss Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) and lives in a van parked in the street. Alan befriends Miss Shepherd and due to his mild manner and her forceful character, he ends up inviting her to park her van in his driveway and she stays there for 15 years. As Alan learns more about Miss Shepherds life and writes about her and their interactions, he muses with himself on the nature of the writer, whether they write about their experiences or have experiences so as to write about them.
At first it was hard to know the feel this film was aiming for. In the beginning it felt like a comfy British flick for the older generation, and there’s nothing wrong with. But soon darker aspects arise as we learn more about Miss Shepherd and her past. I couldn’t understand how a defenseless elderly lady was allowed to just live on the street like that, surely there ought to be some social provision for her. But aside from a couple of social workers who visit occasionally, apparently not. However Miss Shepherd’s independence is key to her character. Maggie Smith shows off her immense acting skills in the role, portraying fierce independence, nervous vulnerability, sharp wit, naivety and a bullying nature often all in one scene. She has many great lines but my favourite is when she says to Alan Bennett after having lived in his driveway for some time, “I know who those men are who come to your house at night. They’re communists!” Not only did Maggie Smith make me laugh she also made me cry. The more we, and Alan Bennett, find out about her past life the more tragic and yet dignified her character becomes. Instead of seeing her as a crazy old lady we can see the incredible strength she posses after the things she has been through, and lets just say the Catholic Church does not come out in a positive light.
Alex Jennings is a chameleon of an actor, you know you’ve seen him in things before but you can’t quite place him. Having him literally talk to himself with a split screen could have a come across as a gimmick, the writer version of Alan staying at his desk while the everyday version of Alan doing all the action. But it really helped to get across the film’s main theme. As Alan Bennett writes about Miss Shepherd, social issues unavoidably come up around how society treats those who are different from them. There are also parallels made between Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett’s mother, while his mother is packed off to an old people’s home Miss Shepherd is allowed to live in his driveway. Important as these aspects are, they are used to make a point about the morality of Alan Bennett using Miss Shepherd in his writing to make these points, because she is her own person, not just a tool in his story, and why shouldn’t she deserve to be a story all on her own. There is a meta moment at one point where the film blatantly tells us that the conversation happening on screen did not happen in real life, it’s there to further the plot because those are needed in films but aren’t always conveniently there in the real world.