Title: The Lady In The Van
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Major Players: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam
Out Of Five: Four
Fans of national treasure Alan Bennett will have already been to the LFF screening or have Friday, 13 November marked in their diaries. Because his latest play to arrive on the big screen – after The History Boys and The Madness Of King George – is The Lady In The Van, probably one of his best known of the lot.
In the late 1960s, Bennett (Alex Jennings) moved to leafy Gloucester Crescent in Camden and found it had an additional resident – the destitute Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who lived in her van further up the road. Until, that is, she fell foul of the neighbours and ended up parked on Bennett’s driveway. She stayed there for the next 15 years, during which time he slowly discovered more about her remarkable life.
It’s a true story. Miss Shepherd became a permanent fixture on his drive and the crescent as a whole. But she was no loveable little old lady. Rude, unable to say thank you for any kindness shown to her and decidedly insanitary, she became a figure of fun, affection and concern among the residents: nobody wanted to have her van outside their house, let alone on their drive. Think of the effect on property prices, after all. Taking her Christmas presents, food etc was a way of them salving their consciences.
Bennett uses the story to examine subjects like community spirit and loneliness, as well as looking at the way he and the unpredictable old lady became unexpectedly dependent on each other. And there’s more to it than him cleaning up her detritus and her wanting to use the facilities in his house. As he says himself, “caring is all about shit” although, as he also forcefully points out to the social worker, he’s not Miss Shepherd’s carer.
Running in parallel is the story of Bennett’s relationship with his mother, who’s in Yorkshire. His father has already died and at the start of the film she’s an active elderly lady who misses her son. She slowly declines, becomes forgetful and her visits to London diminish until she ends up in a home. He’s essentially bookended by two elderly women, very different ones, who need his care and attention in different ways.
Much as I like Bennett, I’ve never actually read the original book or seen the play, so I can’t comment on how faithful an adaptation this is. That said, given that Bennett is also responsible for the screenplay, it’s a fair assumption that we’re on safe ground. And in this version we get a double helping of the author, both played by Alex Jennings, the go-to actor for portraying Bennett. One is the writer, the other the person and they talk to each other, grumble, argue and challenge each other, especially when it comes to the accuracy of his writing. It’s not a new idea – Charlie Kaufman used something similar in Adaptation – but here it’s a little too heavy for the big screen.
The cast looks like the latest edition of Who’s Who In British Acting. Apart from Smith in the title role and Jennings, there’s Roger Allam, Frances De La Tour, Marion Bailey, Gwen Taylor and David Calder. And a flurry of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos: Russell Tovey, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore, Samuel Bennett and Samuel Anderson. All of them, along with De La Tour, appeared in the National Theatre’s original production of The History Boys, written by Bennett and directed by Hytner. It turns the film into something of a reunion, an ‘in’ joke, which gives the film a certain cosiness and a smidge of inverted snobbery.
Maggie Smith, of course, is glorious as Miss Shepherd, not that you would expect anything less. After playing one too many crusty dowager duchesses, it’s a relief and a joy to watch her play a real character – eccentric, irascible, fiercely independent and yet, underneath, vulnerable and scared. In her layers of clothes, she has a curiously androgynous look, not so much a woman, simply a human being. Jennings has turned portraying Bennett into a fine art, having played the role more times than he probably cares to remember. And he’s got it off to a T: he looks just enough like Bennett and sounds just enough like him without turning it into an impersonation. And, while there isn’t any mention of the macaroons immortalised in Dead Ringers’ weekly parody of Bennett, meringues put in an appearance instead!
Appealing it may be, but you can’t help but wonder how wide an audience The Lady In The Van will have. Bennett fans – and there are plenty – are a given and, people from mid-40s up will probably go for it as well. Those much younger than that might have difficulty identifying with it. They may find it a touch too cosy – but they’ll grow into it.
The Lady In The Van was screened at the London Film Festival on 13 and 14 October and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on 15 October. It is released in cinemas around the UK on Friday, 13 November.