Usually it is a leading man’s handsome good looks or an actress’s alluring curves that a director chooses to highlight. In Nicholas Hytner’s whimsical but incisive adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, Maggie Smith’s bulbous right eye is frequently the camera’s focal point, and it’s uncanny how the shot draws you deeper into her character’s psyche whenever it’s used. Miss Shepherd (Smith) is an irascible, malodorous old biddy with a mysterious past as a novice nun, a WWII ambo and a concert pianist. Now on her uppers, she lives in the back of a yellow van. When she parks it in the driveway of the house that Alan (Alex Jennings) has just purchased in Camden Town, it is expected to be a temporary arrangement – but she stays for fifteen years. Remarkably, this is a true story, and Hytner, who collaborated with Bennett on The History Boys (2006) and The Madness of King George (1994), has again shown himself to have a receptive ‘ear’ for the writer’s wry humour and understated pathos. He has also reminded us that lightness of touch need not necessarily reflect lightweight content, for the movie deals with the serious issues of loneliness, guilt and the challenges of ageing. It opens with Miss Shepherd being pursued by the police after an accident in which somebody has come to grief – it’s the thorny problem that does not permit the screenplay to settle into idle cosiness, and the revisiting of the incident near the end is genuinely shocking. Smith, as always, is superb, but so too is the unsung Jennings, who understands perfectly well that this is also about Alan and the two worlds he occupies as dutiful son and as gay playwright – ‘writing is talking to yourself’, he stresses during one of his many voice-overs and conversations with himself. The device of having Jennings duplicated on screen is visually convincing and works a treat as we observe the understanding and empathy that grows between Miss Shepherd and her queer host. Heartwarming, funny and sad – a must-see.
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