Bennett to the max
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