*** (out of five)
Alex Jennings plays Alan Bennett exactly as you’d always imagined him – stuffy, witty, and ludicrously British – in this adaptation of Bennett’s novella, and subsequent play, which told the true story of an old lady who lived in her van in Bennett’s driveway in Camden for fifteen years. Maggie Smith plays the old lady, and twenty members of the cast of Bennett’s play The History Boys appear in the film. It’s as cosy as a home-cooked steak and kidney pie.
Early on, an actor in Bennett’s West End play at the time says of it, “It’s so English. Just what people want.” Like everything in Bennett, the line is being terribly clever, speaking, as it plainly is, about the film you’re watching. This vehicle – see what I did there? – delivers everything a Maggie Smith-loving Anglophile could possibly desire, including dry wit, acerbic wit, spiky wit and melancholic wit.
What’s surprising and delightful is that the film has a little more to offer than just Smith and wit: it’s quite a personal insight into Bennett – one of the most popular playwrights of all time – as well as the suburb of Camden in the 1970s and 80s, class (of course) and, naturally, the way societies treat the aged (and non-conformists). It’s also much more cinematic than I was expecting it to be.
Bennett is not really my cup of tea, and the most his zingers get out of me is a wry smile, but if you’re a fan of him or Smith, this will be catnip. If you’re a fan of both, this will be heroin, of the purest grade. Not that Bennett would go anywhere near that.