Beloved English playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett (“A Private Function,” “Prick Up Your Ears”) reunites with director Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George,” “The History Boys”) for their third stage-to-screen collaboration. Originally based on Bennett’s memoir, the film—on an opening title card— cheekily confesses to being a “mostly true story,” and then proceeds to imaginatively deconstruct that admission, setting it up as a pervasive theme.
It is, in fact, true that when Bennett moved into his house in a Camden Town crescent in 1973 he became the de facto guardian of an odiferous, elderly woman, Miss Shepherd, portrayed on stage 16 years ago by Maggie Smith, who reprises the irascible role here. Real-life Bennett became even more personally involved when he allowed real-life Miss Shepherd to move the hoarded van in which she was living to his drive, where it stayed—newspapers, waste-filled grocery bags and all—for 15 years.
Beyond that, the specifics and motivations behind their relationship are anyone’s guess, including the screenwriter himself, if the musings, delivered by the delightfully buttoned-up Alex Jennings playing the dueling on-screen versions of Bennett, are to be believed. One Bennett, relegated to home, is the writer; the other tasked with “living” in order to give the other something to write about. The two bicker like an old married couple, with the writer egging the on the other self to get more involved in goings-on outside the house in order to mine for material. To him, Miss Shepherd is gold. To the other, the burden of another old woman to care for.
Complicating the psyche of the flesh-and-blood Bennett are his feelings toward his own aging mother (Gwen Taylor). First, asking him to visit more often, and then later not remembering him at all. The dialogue crackles when the two Bennetts discuss either women, and more often than not they can’t mention one without the other. In a moment of pure pathos, Bennett’s mother is apprehensive to meet Miss Shepherd, who homelessness notwithstanding, still speaks poshly.
To present the audience with an existential dichotomy represented by the same actor doubled, though the mild cardigans vary, is a bold move, but it cuts quickly to the heart of the story, which could have easily been presented as a heartwarming odd couple story, marketed to the elderly and simple. And there is some of that. Miss Shepherd is given her due; Smith’s proprietary but lovable hauteur is on full display. Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour are also charming as bourgie neighbors. But Bennett’s creative inspiration, along with the resulting guilt it induces, steals the show.