There are two obvious reasons to see this movie, Maggie Smith and Alan Bennett (the writer). Those of you who do not know Alan Bennett are clearly not Beyond the Fringe fans. Beyond the Fringe was the most brilliantly funny stage show ever (yes funnier than Monty Python or the Goons and starring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller – okay my random plug for my favourite comedy troupe). Bennett however became and is an accomplished playwright and is a very funny and observant writer about the human condition. This autobiographical story is a great example of his style, wit and insight. The story is based on a real life situation in which a remarkable homeless woman played by Maggie Smith takes up residence in her van in Bennett’s driveway in an upper class neighborhood in London. Its intended she will squat there for a few months but ends up living there for 15 years until her death. There is mystery about her. She is in many ways a typical homeless person, malnourished, rude and cranky, and unsanitary. On the other hand she is clearly well educated, had trained to be a nun at one point and as it turns out is an accomplished pianist. None of her story is evident at the start but is slowly revealed over the course of the film. Maggie Smith gives an OSCAR worthy performance and the film will be in general release this fall so you can all judge for yourselves shortly.
The story of the film is about the relationship between the two and juxtaposes their relationship with Bennett’s relationship with his own mother who declines into dementia over the course of the film. While his mother declines, Maggie Smith’s character, who suffers from her own mental illness, thrives in her van. I, like most of the audience I am sure, could not stop thinking of their own mothers as the story unfolds. I confess to shedding a few tears not so much out of sadness as sympathy for the woman and the story.
We were lucky to have the director present for a Q and A and he was wonderful. It turns out he was Bennett’s neighbour through part of the 15 years the Lady lived in Bennett’s drive and continues to live just around the block. He also directed all of Alan Bennett’s plays in the West End including the theatrical debut in 1999 on which the film is based. Hytner is the former artistic director of London’s National Theatre and as I noted a charming, thoughtful speaker. He gave us much background about the film, the people and the neighbourhood. He also concurred with me that Maggie Smith is the best actor working today and possibly the best actor ever or certainly of our life time. I also would be remiss not to mention the performance of Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Apparently Bennett believed Jennings gave a far better performance as Alan Bennett than he could so Jennings got the part. I suspect Jennings deserves a nod at awards ceremonies too. I can’t recommend this film more highly to everyone. One of the best I have ever seen at TIFF in over 20 years.