Third time’s no charm for director Nicholas Hytner, messing up yet another promising Alan Bennett project. In his debut pic, Bennett’s THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE/’94, Hytner came up short on the skill set needed to handle the play’s tricky ‘Oscar Wilde goes historical’ tone; arch when it needed to be sober and vice versa. Then, the stunning theatricality of THE HISTORY BOYS/’06, a raptly witty look at first-bromance in a boys’ ‘public’ school, was lost in a period setting that needed to be a decade earlier, and a cast that was a decade too old. This time, Hytner is just too literal, killing a largely true story that needs to feel like a conceit with too much realistic detail. Maggie Smith is fierce & fine as the eccentric homeless woman in an artsy/upscale London neighborhood who lives in a pigsty of a van. Tolerated, even catered to, by the locals, she somehow parks for fifteen uncomfortable years in the driveway of playwright/performer Bennett. Their wary relationship, and Bennett’s slowly emerging understanding of how it refracts on his other relationships, makes up the fragile story. With little narrative structure, other than the slow physical disintegration of various parties, Bennett tricks up his script (from his own collected magazine pieces over the years) by going ‘meta,’ double-casting himself (Alex Jennings doing the honors) as both the man living in the real-life drama, and as the separate-but-equal omnipotent typewriting scribe of the events. (Right at the end, the real Alan Bennett appears to make things ‘Meta².’) The film is wonderfully acted by all, down to the tiniest role, but you can see what’s gone wrong with a glance at our poster, taken not from the film but from the book jacket. Hytner is unable to get past the literal and into Bennett’s literary imagination, so what comes off as whimsical & melancholy on page (and wistfully comic in the illustrations of this particular edition), turns frankly gross, rank & unacceptable played in the flesh. Hytner probably would have used Smell-O-Vision had it still been available, and not found it distracting.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see what Bennett & Maggie Smith can do together (and with Bennett directing), try BED AMONG THE LENTILS/’88, one of the best soliloquies in his TALKING HEADS series.