Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. United Kingdom, 2015. BBC Films, TriStar Productions. Screenplay by Alan Bennett, based on his memoir. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Produced by Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones, Kevin Loader. Music by George Fenton. Production Design by John Beard. Costume Design by Natalie Ward. Film Editing by Tariq Anwar. Golden Globe Awards 2015. Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
Having newly found his footing as a playwright on the London stage, Alan Bennett (portrayed with effortless delight by Alex Jennings) moves into a fashionable house in Camden and immediately discovers once of its dubious charms: an elderly, not perpetually stable woman (Maggie Smith) who is rank in odor and often in attitude, her vehicular abode an eyesore of garbage bags and dirty curtains that she parks on his street. His practical sense is in combat with his writer’s curiousity, portrayed quite cheekily by splitting Jennings in two and having him perform dialogue with himself, which results in him inviting Smith to park her festering van in his driveway despite the fact that he agrees with the neighbours’ disapproval of the idea. What is meant to be a temporary respite to her parking problems eventually becomes years of this woman taking up residence at his house, frequently using his lavatory and making remarks on the parade of handsome young men exiting his front door late at night (They must be communists!) At the same time, Bennett’s own mother declines in health and provides a symbiotic theme against the relationship he develops with Smith that, thanks to the fact that Bennett is such an astute and unsentimental writer, he does not portray in a pathetic or manipulative way. Smith fulfills all the faith we have had in her exceptional career, mercurial as always with her bony hands and large, searching eyes, completely fearless of this person’s unattractive qualities: a combination of boastful self-denial, mental fogginess, obvious fails of hygiene and very little poignancy. There is no cinematic glamorizing of the homeless in this sassy tale, even if Smith is so frequently funny, and her edges never soften just because we find out the details of her past that have led her to this unfortunate dire circumstance in which she lives. Frances de la Tour is gorgeous in a supporting role as one of the friendlier neighbours on the street, and the film strikes a perfect balance between intelligent and emotional without ever descending to the simplicity of being heartwarming.