Hounded by do-gooders, social workers and Camden Council, playwright Alan Bennett (Jennings) offers his drive as a temporary haven for Miss Shepherd (Smith), a bonkers, opinionated and malodorous old lady who lives in a van. She ends up staying for 15 years.
Based on the “mostly true” book and stage accounts of the peculiar van-lady who took refuge on his property, Alan Bennett’s deceptively light-hearted brew of social observation and self-examination comes to the screen as modestly as you like. You might say that director Nicholas Hytner has styled his movie to the exact specifications of the famously nebbish personality of his screenwriter-cum-subject matter. Shot in and around the Camden terrace Bennett moved into in the ’70s, showing off is expressly forbidden.
Well, with one exception: like Tom Hardy’s twin Krays of Legend, at the heart of the film we find flawlessly rendered twin Bennetts (both Alex Jennings). This is entirely a theatrical device. One is Life Bennett, fretting behind his curtains, failing to take charge of the situation. The other is Writer Bennett, his Gollum-y inner-smarty pants supplying barbed witticisms and exploiting this strange predicament for fiction. “You won’t get Harold Pinter pushing anything down a street,” he points out unhelpfully.
We move through the years, the van rusting away, to the unfussy rhythm of the entwined lives of this oddest of couples. More accurately, we follow Bennett’s testy analysis of his own reaction to his squatter’s fierce devotion to prayer, casual racism, explosive defecation, and an elusive past. “She never lets on…” he says, concerned they have more in common than he cares to admit.
There is an aura of caricature about Jennings’ well-honed Bennett (he’s played him on stage and TV), so comforting and English he might have been animated by Nick Park. It’s the caricature in which Bennett armoured himself long ago: the cardie-clad man of letters distributing home truths with wistful candour. Is he putting up with the insufferable Miss Shepherd only because he is too timid to object?
Smith, as you would expect, has a ball. It’s a liberating role, unencumbered by social niceties and deafeningly oblivious to kindness. She is shrill and hilarious, but not a joke. Smith is too astute to neglect the brittleness, the lingering sense of loss. Her abandoned life haunts both Bennett’s conscience and his art. Who is she? How did she end up like this? And why does he care so much? The film becomes a quest, of sorts. Bennett, man and writer, wants to restore a life. Whose exactly remains open to question.
Unshowy to a fault, Hytner delivers a fine, moving comedy of English manners between a writer and his eccentric tenant, which slowly deepens into an exploration of human bonds.