Dame Maggie Smith stars in Nicholas Hytner’s film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s self-starring play. It has been 15 years since Smith first took on the role of Margret Shepherd, roughly the same amount of time that Shepherd spent living in Bennett’s driveway. An agreement of three months soon turns into fifteen years when writer Alan Bennett decides to invite Mrs. Shepherd to park her van on his driveway. Shepherd, a nun on the run from the law, has had a very coloured past: a famous concert pianist, a two-time nun, a hit and run driver and now an extroverted old lady who ‘stinks of piss’ to put it politely.
The gap of fifteen years between Smith’s first depiction of Mrs. Shepherd has only strengthened her character portrayal. Far from the up-tight depiction of the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, we see Dame Maggie Smith in a completely different light. Her ability to evoke any emotion from the audience shows what a seasoned professional she really is.
Alan Bennett is presented as two people; the writer and the living self. The writer Bennett documents the exploits of the living version; forever encouraging him to be less timid and more adventurous. The duo – in matching knitted cardigans – bickers like an old married couple and gives rise to plenty of comic opportunity, while also allowing for an element of complexity in the relationship that Bennett has with himself.
The relationship between Bennett and Mrs. Shepherd really tips the film over the edge. Bennett’s overt compassion, stemming from feelings for his own ‘Mam’ clashes with Shepherd’s cold harsh nature. But from seeing her as “bigoted, rank and rude”, he ultimately reflects upon her as a “vagabond nobility”.
As with any Nicholas Hytner film, cameos from History Boy’s stars spring up like daisies at every turn, with James Cordon as a green grocer and Dominic Cooper as an actor in one of Bennett’s plays, to name but a few. The film is endearing, heart-warming, and quintessentially British; where else would a man be too polite to ask a squatter to leave?
Image: R Sones