4 / 5
The “mostly true story” of Alan Bennett’s strange, cantankerous live-in resident (well, almost) is filled to the bespectacled and becardiganed brim with laughs. And not just for the ‘older viewer’, it has to be said. Based on Bennett’s short story and play of the same name, The Lady in the Van not only tackles the customarily difficult to master multiple narrator structure, making the astute transition from theatre to cinema in the capable hands of Nicholas Hytner, but infuses finely tuned comedic sarcasm and dry wit with genuinely testing and perhaps less intently explored themes. Alan does know how to catch my heart – that simultaneous comfort and emotional turmoil which becomes apparent is oddly soothing.
This so-called lady in the van – Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) – is a bit of a handful. She knows her own mind and her own way of life, and doesn’t let the other residents get in the way of that. Filmed in and around Bennett’s actual Gloucester Crescent house, there is a real air of authenticity, both in the brown ‘70s clothing aesthetic and the up-and-coming status of Camden’s art-mum side roads. It’s all real, after all. Miss Shepherd is, naturally, credited a local nuisance, regularly on the move for another roadside spot to make her home, always outside the house of rich media types to varying degrees of acceptance. That is until she pitches up outside Alan’s, a man who is uncharacteristically welcoming of her presence, for the most part at least. Maggie Smith’s outrageous Dowager-Countess-who-has-hit-hard-times outpouring is relentlessly impressive, not just for her prized vocal energy but for moments, albeit fleeting ones, of the turbulent underbelly that is her past.
As for Alan, Alex Jennings’ rather overlooked performance is utterly engrossing. It’s not so much a performance as an absolute embodiment of Bennett’s being. Split into two personas – Bennett the writer and Bennett the liver, that being the one who does the living, not the glandular organ – there is this completely believable bickering friction between each other’s ways of life. Alan the Writer wants the better story, occasionally warping facts, though comically trapped in the restraints of his own mundane style. Alan the Liver gets to interact with his characters, whether he wants to or not, a social worker of Miss Shepherd a particular conversational highlight (“I’m sensing hostility!”), mildly bitter in the light of Alan the Writer’s more passive purpose.
When Alan the Liver becomes more aware of Miss Shepherd’s torment – van pushing and harassment from a sleazy Jim Broadbent – he invites her into his drive, an offer met by her feigned indifference. Of course she accepts, and stays for 15 years.
Miss Shepherd’s mental state is purposely ambiguous throughout the whole film. She has a story, like us all, but something specific, something like guilt, is following her around. It’s only when she is given a home, of sorts, that we find out any more. Her musical ability is a memory in the wind (“studying incognito a Paris” – and so ensues the obligatory French scene a la The History Boys who, incidentally, each have small roles) and, as Alan’s mother touches upon in her aghast Yorkshire tone, just how could an educated woman end up living in a van? You can’t help but notice the irony in her surroundings – a once master pianist, unappreciated in a microcosm of hilariously pretentious opera-goers.
The story is slight but the laughs are aplenty, and Miss Shepherd never failing to provide equal confusion, disgust and bewilderment. And while her more gentle moments may or may not be fictionalised, you cannot help but fall for her antiheroic charm, especially when Alan does too.