with Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings.
Alan Bennett, a British writer, living in London in the early 1970s, is confronted by a woman not of her right mind who has decided to take up residence in his neighborhood. The way she does this is by parking her van in front of someone’s house, and at one point, she chooses his.
Bennett (Alex Jennings), whose memoir the movie is based on, very cleverly demonstrates how a writer is really two persons: the one doing the living and the other doing the writing. As a person living his life, Bennett behaves in a civilized fashion and does not immediately object to the woman living in a van in his driveway for the next fifteen years, and the writer simply keeps track of and invents some details about the situation. Jennings plays both sides of the writer’s personality in a subtle and humorous way, speaking to himself so that we can see him not once but twice. Nicolas Hytner directs these internal chats so that we feel the conflict within by witnessing it externalized. How many of us have had these quibbles with ourselves? It is a pleasure to watch.
This is really a play with two main characters, or three if you count the two sides of the writer’s brain. Maggie Smith is Miss Shepherd, an elderly eccentric. We learn that she was a nun earlier in life, she hates the sound of music, even though she was an accomplished pianist, she rarely if ever bathes, and never says thank you no matter how many kindnesses are heaped on her. Smith performs with her usual biting energy, suffering no fools, and demonstrating how to get your way without asking.
She enjoys painting her various vehicles a bright shade of yellow and enlists the assistance of Bennett by asking for a kitchen tray in which to put the yellow paint in and a washing up brush serves as her paintbrush. How to be humane might be the subtitle of the movie, since its story touches on the lack of decency by certain institutions like the Catholic Church, and the importance of people who are tolerant (or indolent and passive) like the author of the story.
The movie is not meant to teach us anything; it honors the history of these two independent strong minded people who develop a unique relationship formed on proximity. Sometimes it is easier to be kind to strangers than to your own mother.
march 25 revision
Saw the movie again, and neglected to mention two things. First is the importance of the neighborhood as a community, taking care of the woman who obviously needed help. When social workers turned up they seem outsiders even though they bring truly essential services like medicine and clean clothes.
Second is the opening scene which is jarringly violent and begins the lady’s descent into her indigent state. Some of the story of Miss Sheperd has the air of a mystery since she has locked it up in layers of shame. Also, to characterize her as merely eccentric is to diminish the scope of her deplorable hygiene and manners.
Several people call Bennett a saint and he deflects the comment. How can a man who doesn’t exactly neglect but shies from his mothers emotional needs be a saint. On the other hand he has agreed to take responsibility for a woman who needs his help. While Miss Shepherd is ungrateful, she knows he is getting something from his efforts. The author is grateful to his subject and gives her a glorious send off.