The narrow winding staircase with the smooth mahogany handrail. The cornishware mug. A beautiful marble fire-surround heading for the skip in the background. Neighbours complaining openly about those they judge to be the crassly well-to-do moving into the street. Alan Bennett wheeling past on his bike. Apart from the fire-surround, which would now be heading back into the house as ‘reclaimed’ at great expense, this picture of Camden Town – brought to us by another local, director Nicholas Hytner – is like seeing pictures of a dear friend in their youth: cheerful, less well-off, optimistic, familiar and nostalgic.
And into this world came the cantankerous Miss Sheppard and her van. As unwelcome as the maligned affluent newcomers but in her misfortune being off-limits for overt neighbourly criticism, the residents of Gloucester Crescent endured her presence in her unconventional abode until Alan Bennett finally gave in to the inevitable and offered her his driveway to park on. And there she lived for fifteen years, the playwright taking reluctant responsibility for her welfare and safety.
Maggie Smith as Miss Sheppard is utterly superb in conveying the child-like vulnerability and frailty behind the indignant and contrarian facade. Her eccentricity and what Bennett calls in the film her ‘vagabond nobility’ is at once hilarious, shocking and desperately moving. With his mother lonely and yearning for his company, ironically Bennett finds himself shouldering the unwelcome burden of his mother’s ‘derelict counterpart.’ The poignancy is complete.
Alex Jennings makes a wonderful Alan Bennett, pulling off the twins device that made me think – rather incongruously, it felt – of Arnie Hammer in The Social Network or Tom Hardy playing the Kray Twins; but in this case the writerly Alan sits at his desk observing and recording in ink, paired up with his alter ego, responsible for doing the living while Alan the writer wrote about it.
Having famously exposed his parents to brutally honest critique, Bennett turns this brutal honesty on himself, showing himself to be unflatteringly frustrated and put-upon by the lodger on his drive, motivated not by altruism but, he says, by laziness. Bennett includes in the tale his string of young male visitors, pleasingly played as cameos by actors from his other works such as Russell Tovey. And Miss Sheppard claims to know why these young men must visit by dead of night: they must be communists, she declares.
Beautifully shot and crammed to bursting with familiar actors, the film is exquisitely witty, mordant, charming, emotive, and ultimately an essay on kindness and how it can surprise the person offering it much more than the person receiving it.
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