Here’s a film that while certainly an attractive prospect for an older audience seems to have cashed in at the UK box office and perhaps exceeded expectations. Today it was reported that after its third weekend the film had made over £9 million with strong midweek takings and the prospect of further profitable weeks ahead. I’m not sure if the main attraction is Alan Bennett’s writing or the star turn of Maggie Smith in the lead role. It occurs to me that Smith’s celebrity status associated with ITV’s Downton Abbey may have attracted an audience for whom Bennett’s more theatrical writing is not so attractive.
The worrying aspect of the film’s success is the essentially conservative nature of the production. The original events on which the story is based took place outside Bennett’s Camden house over a long period between the early 1970s and 1989. Bennett first wrote a slim book that was published in 1989, then a stage play which ran from 1999 and a radio adaptation in 2009. Maggie Smith appeared in both the theatre and radio adaptations. Nicholas Hytner directed the 1999 play and directed the film – just as he had for the two earlier Bennett adaptations, The Madness of King George and The History Boys. Bennett, Smith and Hytner are thus re-treading very familiar territory. I suppose it could be argued via the Downton Abbey link that this time they are potentially reaching a much wider audience. It does make me wonder how well the original play might have worked for a cinema audience if the ‘live screenings’ of West End plays had been available in 1999? I haven’t seen any of the previous versions so I don’t know how much is new or altered in this film version.
There are some obvious features that would not have been easily achieved in the theatre (though Wikipedia assures me that they were). Alex Jennings who plays Bennett is asked to have dialogues with himself. One character is Bennett the Camden resident who interacts with Margaret/Mary Shepherd and the other is the writer who observes and makes comments. As Bennett the writer remarks, some things that happened have been left out of the script and some have been invented (but in the spirit of the story). At the end of the film there is a rather fantastical sequence which could I think be staged in the theatre and which has generally got a bad press, though it didn’t bother me. Overall I don’t think this is a particularly ‘cinematic film’. I generally hate it when critics disparage films by referring to them being more suited to television but in this case I have to concur.
I have generally avoided Downton Abbey (although I did see chunks of the first series) and I don’t really enjoy Maggie Smith’s performances that much. I’m sure that they are very skilled but they don’t work for me. But I’m mainly disappointed that Alan Bennett hasn’t written more new material and explored different subject matter. I know he has been ill and he is now in his 80s but I do admire and respect him as a writer and this particular script seems to be very much concerned with the kinds of characters and social issues which informed his television plays of the 1970s and the monologues of the 1990s.
The Lady in the Van is sometimes very funny and with a cast that includes Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent and Gwen Taylor and a host of others it can’t help being entertained – but it never really engaged me. Perhaps it’s all a bit too much ‘North London middle-class’. If this was a shlock horror film it might be dismissed as exploitation cinema – but actually that’s what it is, a new version of an old script for the audience that doesn’t usually go to the cinema. I have no problems with exploitation if it gives people want they want to see, but we should name it appropriately.