A few days back I commented on how stories about extraordinary people tend to feel made up. This is a slightly different spin. While the narrating character and writer of this biopic, Alan Bennett (Madness of King George), is mostly believable, and even the subject of his focus, played by Maggie Smith (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), is familiar in her way, it is their extraordinary circumstances that are the head-scratchingly odd part. What begins simply enough, becomes an utter extreme of being too polite such that Monty Python could be proud. But it is the interplay of the two, and how they get to their arrangement and settle into it, that will have you laughing and cringing. Odder still, it really happened; and the end result will leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Director Hytner (History Boys) helps Alex Jennings navigate Bennett’s life and his surrounds in such a way as to never quite feel forced. His neighbors, who include folks such as Roger Allam (Endeavour) and Frances de la Tour (Mr. Holmes), among others, pull off a sense of the apologetic, rising middle class in England in that period. And Russel Tovey (Grabbers) and Dominic Cooper (An Education) also put in small cameos that made me smile.
Honestly, only Jim Broadbent (Brooklyn) came off as forced. His character was given no room to breathe and his dialogue was cliche at best. It was a shame as I’d like to have seen some nuance and humanity there, even if there was none in real life.
Both Bennett and Hytner were acutely aware of how outlandish and unbelievable the story would seem. The choice to have Jennings play two roles, both his inner and outer personas, was a wonderful way to bridge the needs and provide entertainment. There are even moments, much like The Big Short, where he comments on the action as “made up” in order to make a point. It is this kind of conversation with the audience that makes this film more of a wonderfully told anecdote that you hear over drinks or a long dinner than a sappy movie meant to pound you on the head. The story is as much, if not more, about the narrator, despite it telling the story of someone else.
This is a crafty little gem of a story that will leave you with wider eyes to the world. It is subtle, but it is effective.