The Lady in the Van 2015 ***

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Alan Bennett has become a British national treasure in a way that’s completely at odds with what he writes. He may be caricatured as an avuncular figure who writes about funny old codgers, but Bennett’s work is also suffused with anger and a desire for social justice. His The History Boys is a rare film about school-teaching that’s not beholden to sentiment, and while The Lady in the Van was marketed as a lovable romp for Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith, it’s a true story about how the elderly are sidelined from society that’s anything but pat. Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself, and captured the playwright’s mannerisms without fuss under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, while Smith makes a complex figure of Miss Shepherd, who parked her van on his driveway and remained there for 15 years. US audiences, perhaps unfamiliar with Bennett’s work, would do well to take a look at this as an introduction to his work; it’s funny, honest, witty but never steps away from uncomfortable truths.

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The History Boys 2006 ****

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Alan Bennett adapted his own stage hit for director Nicholas Hytner, and the result is an unconventional view of the educational process that brims with wit and acute observation of teachers and pupils alike. Hector (Richard Griffith) is the avuncular history teacher gifted with a splendid group of prospects, including James Cordern, Russell Tovey, Dominic Cooper and Samuel Anderson. Hector’s unconventional methods reward his charges with the freedom to think about their subject, and to take their education seriously, but his own sexual proclivities threaten to discredit his own innovative stylings. With little sentimentality, and a practical view of the realities of pupil-teacher relationships, The History Boys is one of the few films about education that actually teach the audience something; an uplifting story about fulfilment that never forgets the complexities of teenage development.