This movie is notable for the contributions of two ‘National Treasures’. Firstly there is Alan Bennett – angst-ridden handwringer, introspective, a little-bit fey, a little-bit camp whose wry humour has, over the years, lifted the lid on Northerners, schools and the Camden set. Then there is Dame Maggie Smith – consummate theatrical actor, twice an Oscar-winner, Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello, the definitive Jean Brodie and go-to dowager duchess for at least two decades culminating in Downton Abbey. For someone of Dame Maggie’s pedigree, Downton has been somewhat infra dig (she doesn’t watch it herself). But if the Dowager Duchess of Grantham is two dimensional, the same cannot be said of Miss Shepherd, the Lady in the Van
This is ultimately a flawed movie. But what rescues it is Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the repellent and repulsive Miss Shepherd. It must have been quite early on in this curious relationship that Bennett sensed that behind the imperious bluster and magisterial self-righteousness, there was a just detectable vulnerability borne of a history which, once revealed, tears at the heart strings. Another life ruined by catholic nuns. How many movies have we seen with that particular theme? The subtlety with which Dame Maggie slowly peels back the layers of Miss Shepherd giving us fleeting glimpses of the person she once was and injecting just the right quantities of humour and pathos to leaven the unrelenting awfulness of the person she has become is an acting tour de force. This is a performance which has Oscar nomination stamped all over it.
Unfortunately, the movie as a whole will not trouble the judges for Best Picture. Hytner would have done much better to stick to his original National Theatre production. As it is he seems to feel that because this is cinema it demands cinematic treatment. The device of having two Alan Bennetts - the one with the social conscience and the cynically exploitative writer – (both played by Alex Jennings) seems clumsy and illogical. All writers draw their source material from life, as do painters, and to call that exploitative is like calling writers of fiction liars. We all know that Bennett is a thoroughly decent fellow and acted honourably and beyond the call of duty in his treatment of Miss Shepherd. What a gift she was for a man who writes so perceptively for and about older women.
The CGI shenanigans in the epilogue are crude and uncalled for; and the cast is like a roll call of all Hytner’s favourite actors (what exactly did James Corden as a market trader add to the movie?) and includes a large contingents from The History Boys. The part of the bent copper played by Jim Broadbent was pure Ealing Comedy.
Dame Maggie single-handedly rescues this movie and manages to raise its status above that of a screwball English comedy of manners to something much more than the sum of its parts.