Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 29, 2016 6:04 pm 
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Homeless in my garden

Maggie Smith gets an even grander and otherwise better and more complex part to play than "Downton Abbey's" Dowager Countess of Grantham in her splendid film reprise of the role of the cantankerous old homeless lady who eventually parks herself (that is, her van, in which she lives) in the driveway of the writer Alan Bennett's big old Camden Town house in London and stays there for over fifteen years. Like The History Boys, The Lady in the Van is full of laughs. The History Boys is one of the best plays I've seen in my life or ever expect to see. But this time the team of Nicolas Hytner, his longtime director, and Alan Bennett, the author, have collaborated for something more freely cinematic.

This includes a full recreation (incarnated by pianist Clare Hammond) of the old lady's moment of glory playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.l 1 with the Brighton Symphony Orchestra before the War (much of it relegated to a closing credits sequence), and a realistic staging of the fatal accident she fled, leading her to live incognito, as well as atmospheric scenes of the street and Bennett's Camden Town neighbors. A resonant insider feature is that this film includes, mostly in minor roles, every one of the stage and film cast of The History Boys, twenty of them, all save the late lamented Richard Griffiths -- including Dominic Cooper, who was the sexy Dakin, and Samuel Barnett, who was the shy repressed gay boy Posner, a stand-in for Bennett, and for Hytner himself. Frances de la Tour, central to that play, is prominent as a visibly aging neighbor here.

Those who think this is a slight story are dismissing one of England's wittiest and most brilliant writers of the last half century. Bennett is a double character in the film, played twice over by Alex Jennings, who was Prince Charles in Frears's The Queen: the Bennett who does the writing, and the Bennett who does the living, though both acknowledge that there's not all that much living, or loving, being done. In a clever trope after the lady's death Bennett is finally revealed to be in a relationship with a man. The man tells him to stop talking to himself, and the two Bennetts merge into one.

Why does Bennett allow Miss Shepherd (Smith) to live in his garden? In his review in the Guardian Peter Bradshaw lists the reasons the film dismisses: timidity, English reticence, Christian charity, acting as "a guilty mother-substitute" (his long-fading mother being a distant but constant figure in the tale), or -- more to the point, an alibi for not having real intimacy in his life; or even "because he intended from the first to use her as material." More likely, Bradshaw says, is that she became for Bennett a strange kind of muse, providing him with his brilliant, wry dramatic insights into loneliness and old age. Her reality, so often noted with distaste by neighbors but dealt with up closer by Bennett (though he never enters the van and only once touches her) is in her trash, her mess, her eccentricity, meanness and ingratitude, and above all her aging decay, disorder, and terrible smell.

But I'd say what the old lady is, is an objective correlative for Bennett, a way to express all his doubt, reticence, and uncertainty about life, its intractable thing-ness, it's in-your-face-ness -- oddly unpromising qualities that nevertheless he transforms into marvelous and enlightening entertainment.

I read about Bennett's long story with the disheveled old lady in her succession of disseveled vans in his Untold Stories in 2005 (written when he thought he was going to die of cancer -- he didn't), but I didn't know there was going to be so much more to it. There was a 11,775-word account I hadn't read that he had published in 1989 in The London Review of Books, written shortly after the old lady died -- the most detailed and specific picture, though perhaps not as touching a one as Maggie and the cast provide.

Though she's done this role over and over, Maggie Smith's performance has nothing of the shtick or the well-worn in this film, as her "Downton Abbey" duchess does. Every reaction feels direct and natural to her and best of all, you even forget, if only for a while, that it's Maggie Smith. Maggie's scene at the day care centre piano after a bath is technically impressive and moving as anything she's ever done.

The Lady in the Van, 104 mins., debuted at Toronto Nov. 2015, playing at half a dozen other festivals. It opened in UK cinemas 13 Nov. 2015. It had a limited US release 8 Dec. 2015, wider 15 Jan. 2016. Opened in Landmark theaters in Northern California 29 Jan. Screened at Landmark Albany, Albany, California.

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