Mary Shepherd has been kind to Alan Bennett. As the subject and title character of a short 1989 memoir that spawned a 1999 play at the National Theatre, a 2009 radio play and now this film version, she has surely repaid the generosity he showed in letting her park in his Camden Town driveway in the 1970s.
It is not really a spoiler to reveal that Shepherd, a malodorous and profoundly eccentric woman whose home was a Bedford CA van (later upgraded), stayed for 15 years. Her host's forbearance at her constant querulous badgering is something to behold, though in his telling of the original story, he was somewhat more splenetic.
We have only Bennett's word for what she was like, of course, but he seems like a reliable narrator because he subjects what he's doing to such intense scrutiny. In all its iterations, the story of the lady is really about Bennett's writing about her, to the extent that in play and film there are two Bennetts: "I'll live it and you write about it," one says to the other, and the conversations between them contain enough ironic detachment to guard against both sentimentalism and exploitativeness.
Meanwhile, it (mostly) treads the line between broad comedy and pathos. For every episode of lavatory humour, there is another of piercing sadness, and running like a silver thread through the narrative is a hint of the woman Shepherd was and might have been (hat tip to George Fenton's remarkable score).
Smith, recreating her stage performance, invests her character with the "vagabond nobility" that first attracted Bennett, but not at the expense of having - and giving us - a damn good time.
Hytner, who has brought Bennett to the big screen twice before (The Madness of King George and The History Boys) is on safe ground here. He's relaxed enough to give cameo roles to the entire surviving cast of the latter film. It feels like the gesture of a man on a farewell tour (he quit the NT last year), particularly since even Bennett gets a walk-on.
For my money, Jennings makes a fussy, campy job of the two Bennetts that grates a bit, but the smaller roles, particularly Allam (The Thick of It's Peter Mannion) as a liberal, nimby neighbour are marvellous.
And Maggie? Well, she's Maggie, isn't she? Magnificent to behold, terrifying, pathetic and irreproachable. There ain't nothing like that dame. If you liked the arched eyebrow of the dowager countess at Downton Abbey, you just have to get a load of this.
Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Running time: 104 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Maggie Smith's magnificence gives the show wings.