Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say,
“I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
Alan Bennett’s comedy/drama, based on his 1999 play, which grew out of his own personal experience, is a marvel to behold, a little film about a woman in spiritual anguish who impacts the lives of a number of liberal residents in London’s Camden section, Alan Bennett in particular. Maggie Smith brings to her role of bag lady, Miss Shepherd, the same hauteur that she lavishes upon that of the dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. (She also played Miss Shepherd in the original play.) Although obviously well educated, her sense of entitlement is so strong that two phrases seem to have slipped from her vocabulary, “Thank you” and “I am sorry.”
The author, and film director Nicholas Hytner, imagines Alan Bennett as two persons internally, the “Writer” Alan Bennett and the “Life” Alan Bennett, both played by Alex Jennings. Bennett’s two halves converse and argue with each other. Their exchanges bring up the interesting issue of a writer’s exploitation of the people in his life—in this case it is not only Miss Shepherd, but his mother as well. Miss Shepherd seems delusional: in one incident she replies to a man who tells her, “Sorry, you can’t park here,” “No, I’ve had guidance. This is where it should go.” He responds, “Guidance? Who from?” She, “The Virgin Mary. I spoke to her yesterday. She was outside the post office.” The other old lady in Bennett’s life is Mum. When visiting Alan, she disdains Miss Shepherd, whom she considers a nuisance, especially taking offense at the van occupant’s body odor and the woman’s toilet habits. (There are many points in the film when we are glad that SmelloVision never got off the ground!)
At the beginning of the film Alan buys the house in Camden, a neighborhood in London inhabited by other writers and intellectuals. Looking like a disheveled refugee, dressed in an over-sized man’s coat and dirty dresses and scarves, Miss Shepherd is known up and down the street because she has been parking her live-in van there. The residents apparently tolerate her out of a sense of guilt, some even bringing her food, even though she never thanks them. During the Christmas season a kind woman and her two children bring her two small wrapped presents. Miss Shepherd’s gruff response is the order to close the door and keep the cold out.
When the Council starts imposing restricted curb parking, Alan allows Miss Shepherd to park in his driveway, not out of any desire to know her better or heart-felt charity, but seemingly because he is too timid to say No. She is supposed to stay for just the short time while she sorts herself out. This stretches out to 15 years!
In a Hollywood fictional production the two would have formed a deep friendship, Miss Shepherd mellowing into a grateful old lady who comes to regard her host as a son. But this film is based (loosely) on the author’s own life. What the film turns out to be is a biographical mystery akin to Citizen Kane in which Alan Bennett slowly adds pieces of the puzzle called Miss Shepherd. Some say that her real first name is not Mary, but Margaret. There is a strange night visitor who demands money from her. Alan wonders why she has a strong aversion to music. At first we think it is because the music is played amateurishly by children. But then she objects even to Alan’s listening to a recording of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto 1—a piece that we hear several times later. He also learns that she had once been a nun who enjoyed playing music and had been cast out of the order.
Miss Shepherd still goes to church to seek absolution in the confessional booth, but her anguish does not seem to be assuaged by the rite. (One of many incidents played for comedic effect shows her leaving the booth, with the next penitent obviously upset by the odor left behind. We hear the priest, prepared by long experience with Miss Shepherd, telling the man, “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin.” Sure, enough when the man looks behind the statue outside the booth, there is the welcome bottle.) Bennett discovers his “tenant” is fluent in French, and, eventually, that she had been a talented concert pianist. So, how did such a person become a bag lady? When he learns of her brother and sister-in-law, he visits them to find another piece or two of the puzzle of her life. In a flashback to her days as a nun we see how an unfeeling superior with a twisted view of God and religion can wreak terrible harm on an impressionable young person. Still another puzzle piece that explains why she cannot rid herself of guilt in the confessional booth we learn at…well, you can see this for yourself. Alan imagines a deliciously funny end for Miss Shepherd that is foreshadowed by a brief glimpse of a wall painting—one of those cloying depictions of “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.” Be sure to watch for it in order to enjoy all the more the hilarious special effect-enhanced scene all the more.
Helping and trying to discover Miss Shepherd’s past has more of a liberating effect on Alan Bennett than he could have surmised at the beginning of what amounts to a spiritual journey. He slowly emerges from the personal island onto which he had retreated, connecting better with the outside world because of her intrusion into his little world. There is a literally “touching” moment when he holds Miss Shepherd’s hand, and later his mother’s. Indeed, he moves beyond merely tolerating the latter, whom he had put off when she had hinted that he had room for her in his new house. Years later, slipping into dementia, Mum now lives in a care facility where he visits her. The last time we see Alan he is on stage acting in his new play. We suspect he is a far better writer and actor thanks to the lady in the van who inadvertently led him to discover a compassion that enhances both recipient and giver. This is one of those “little” films that keep me returning to the movies, despite all of the loud big budget turkeys that overshadow them.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.