The Lady in the Van: Film Review

Alan Bennett returns with the strong, if odorous, Lady in the Van. A welcome return for one of England’s best recent wordsmiths.
The Lady in the Van

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Gwen Taylor, Deborah Findlay, James Cordan, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Anderson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Russell Tovey, Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper.

Alan Bennett is one of England’s most loved wordsmiths. His works have graced stage, radio and screen for many years, including his BBC monologue series Talking Heads, which was adapted into a Westt End show featuring himself and Patricia Routledge. Bennett is also responsible for the immensely successful play The History Boys, which was adapted into a film featuring the same cast as the play.

Bennett returns (alongside History Boys director Nicholas Hytner) to our screens for the first time since 2006 with an adaptation of his 1999 stage play and 2009 BBC Radio Play The Lady in the Van. Based on true events the film tells the unique and often charming story of homeless lady Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) who resides in a van, moving intermittently around London and eventually ending up on the street that Bennett (Alex Jennings) chooses to reside on in Camden. Over time she moves her van around the street until eventually it ends up on Mr Bennetts driveway.

Mr Bennett and Miss Shepherd strike up a peculiar caring non-friendship relationship. During her life on the street Mr Bennett becomes an unwitting, and often unwilling carer. Miss Shepherds presence makes him face up to his relationship with his mother, his relationship with men and his relationship with himself. Whilst the title suggests the film is about The Lady in the Van the film is actually mostly about how her presence affected Bennett and how he saw the world around him. Despite himself, he finds himself writing about her, and she becomes his muse. Her foul stench, her distinct avoidance of the phrase ‘Thank you’ and her expectant reliance on the strangers that surround her all inspire (and infuriate) Bennett.

Alex Jennings plays Bennett to perfection. There is a British campness to him that touches the heart, yet there is also a feisty sarcasm to him that provides sharp edges to the softer campness. The film skirts around his sexuality with a string of late night male visitors (all of them History Boys) with Miss Shepherds classic observation of ‘I know what they are, Mr Bennett. Communists!‘. Yet refreshingly this is not made the centre of the film, it is not represented as a topic that is explored. It just is. Wonderful.

Whilst The Lady in the Van has British whimsy and charm in bucket loads there is little of the emotional sentimentality that is seen in recent silver haired cinema as made popular by The Best Marigold Hotel. The audience are not made to feel sorry for Miss Shepherd, as she does not feel sorry for herself. She is a strong old broad, which is how she is portrayed right up till the end. Yes she has her vulnerabilities and the reason she lives in her van is obviously one that bothers her, yet this does not envelope her. She copes with what life has thrown at her with a stoic, sharp wit and selfish mentality that means she has survived.

As is usual for Bennett his scripting is well observed and deliciously executed. His portrayal of the writer part of him as a separate being from the him that lives life adds a certain depth and uniqueness to the film. As with most of his work, Bennett relies on the story and the writing to propel the story forward and the visuals are kept simple yet effective.

With a cast this stellar it is hardly surprising that the performances are all outstanding. Alongside Jennings wonderful performance as Bennett, the supporting cast all provide excellent performances, not least of all Gwen Taylor as Bennetts slightly dementia riddled mother. Of course, the star turn goes to Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd. The British gem shines as brightly as ever as the unapologetic van dweller and we can only hope many more roles are thrown her way. Bennett, get writing.


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