Ben­nett to the max

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE

Parked life: Mag­gie Smith in The Lady in the Van

THE LADY IN THE VAN Di­rected by Ni­cholas Hyt­ner. Star­ring Mag­gie Smith, Alex Jen­nings, Roger Al­lam, Deb­o­rah Findlay, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Tay­lor, Jim Broad­bent, David Calder, James Cor­den, Rus­sell Tovey. 12A cert, gen release, 104 min How much Alan Ben­nett can you take? More than a few read­ers of this news­pa­per – surely, among his nat­u­ral au­di­ence – would re­ply: “How much have you got?” Be care­ful what you wish for. Though im­pec­ca­bly acted and bub­bling with good jokes, the film version of The Lady in the Van comes close to Ben­net­tian su­per-sat­u­ra­tion.

Alex Jen­nings plays two ver­sions of Alan (a “char­ac­ter” since mop­ing onto stage in the early 1960s). One is the man who lived th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences. The other is the writer who trans­lates them for our consumption. If that is not enough for you, then hang on for a glimpse of the real Alan in the clos­ing frames.

It feels as if Ben­nett is work­ing hard – too hard – at keep­ing a slightly thin con­cept aloft. The story of his re­la­tion­ship with Mary Shep­herd, a house­less (if not quite home­less) woman who lived in the Ben­nett drive­way for 15 years, first pro­duced a slim vol­ume for the Lon­don Re­view of Books and then a pop­u­lar play. It is now run­ning out of petrol.

This is not to sug­gest that Miss Shep­herd her­self is any­thing less than fas­ci­nat­ing. Ul­ti­mately pro­vid­ing the cy­clonic Mag­gie Smith with an in­de­cently ap­pro­pri­ate role, the el­derly lady was al­ready park­ing her van in a posh part of Cam­den when Ben­nett ar­rived in the 1970s. If we be­lieve the writer (and we don’t), it was em­bar­rass­ment as much as kind­ness that saw him tol­er­ate her ex­tended pres­ence in the front gar­den. “You wouldn’t get Harold Pin­ter push­ing your van,” he re­marks.

Frances de La Tour is de­light­ful as the widow of Ralph Vaughn Wil­liams. Roger Al­lam is equally good as a com­pos­ite neigh­bour who ex­em­pli­fies all the con­di­tional, flam­boy­ant tol­er­ance of the North Lon­don lib­eral. Flut­ing her lines with an as­trin­gent mu­si­cal­ity, Smith con­vinces us that this is the woman Jean Brodie might have be­come had the wheels come off.

The prob­lem is that, like Miss Shep­herd’s van, the story rarely moves. She re­mains grace­lessly the same through­out. Nar­ra­tive de­tails are plucked out like un­at­tached foot­notes. When the char­ac­ter does open up – dur­ing a baf­flingly ap­palling fi­nal scene – we rather wish the doors had re­mained shut.

Never mind. Too much Ben­nett is still bet­ter than none at all. THE HAL­LOW Di­rected by Corin Hardy. Star­ring Joseph Mawle, Bo­jana No­vakovic, Michael McEl­hat­ton, Michael Smi­ley. Cert 16, gen­eral release, 96mins Adam (Mawle) and Clare (No­vakovic) have re­lo­cated from Lon­don to ru­ral Ire­land. Adam and his in­fant son are out walk­ing in the woods, mark­ing trees for felling, when they hap­pen upon a black fun­gal goo. They have been warned by an­gry lo­cals, no­tably Michael McEl­hat­ton, to stay out of the for­est. They have also been told to keep the sa­cred metal bars across the win­dow of their new home. In­stead, Adam brings home sam­ples of ophio­cordy­ceps uni­lat­er­alis, which we learn is a kind of zom­bie goo. Then there are more dire warn­ings about faeries and

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