During the 70s, a travelling woman who called herself Mary Shepherd parked her van on author and playwright Alan Bennett’s driveway, where she stayed for the next 15 years.
This eponymous Lady in the Van is the subject of the mostly-autobiographical book which Bennett wrote, now adapted into this hilarious yet touching film, directed by experienced Bennett adapter Nicholas Hytner, who headed up both The Madness of King George and The History Boys.
Alex Jennings plays Alan Bennett—young, gay, and living in Camden—times two, presented in a dual role as the Alan who ‘lives’ and the Alan who ‘writes’. This provides a nice opportunity to portray Bennett’s struggles with himself, which come, on the whole, from being over-polite and lacking in confidence.
Jennings captures the essence of a worrisome Bennett, slightly out of place in an area where the neighbours talk behind each others’ backs and have a predictable air of aiming to seem charitable, so long as they don’t actually have to go out of their way to do so.
The film cleverly portrays the writing of the very story being told, with certain sections bookended by the more cynical writer Bennett pointing out that that part never actually happened, no matter how much the living Bennett wanted it to. He also remains adamant right up until the end that he’s “not going to write about this,” owing to his desire to be a more serious writer and focus on something other than old ladies.
Alan Bennett’s unique style rings out across the film. In his instantly-recognisable Leeds accent, he talks of the terrifying mundanity of his own life, reluctantly discussing faeces, social work and singledom. His reluctant allowance of the lady to stay in his driveway seems partially to stem from a latent desire for something atypical to happen in his life—something writer Alan regularly accuses him of.
Dame Maggie Smith plays Mary Shepherd, the nomad with a far more complex and interesting history than it might at first seem. Smith has played the lady before, taking up the role of the dishevelled, belligerent woman in 1999.
Her performance is stellar, displaying the layers upon layers of guilt and façade that Mary Shepherd carried with her, being a self-imposed fugitive following an incident that started her travelling.
The film has powerful moments regarding how we treat the elderly or poor, and the rare moments when Miss Shepherd is the happiest—painting her vans a sickly yellow or racing down the street in a wheelchair, Union flags streaming behind her—are in fact some of the most emotional, reminding us that many people are far too proud or self-serving to give someone seen as crazy or dirty just a little bit of help.
It also has an all-star lineup, with every actor from the original stage production of the brilliant History Boys (all except the late Richard Griffiths) making cameo appearances, some as one-night stands for Bennett. Special mention must go to the brilliant Frances De La Tour, who plays a kind and witty lady of leisure also living on Bennett’s street.
Roger Allam plays Bennett’s neighbour whose “keeping up with the Joneses” self-interest and one-upmanship belies some sympathy for the tatty-clothed, raucous, foul-smelling temporary resident of the street. Over the 15 or more years of her residence parked on the street or in Bennett’s driveway, the families she originally offended grow to really feel for her.
Other big names include Domhnall Gleeson and Jim Broadbent, though nearly all of the aforementioned stars of the screen play the smallest of parts, perhaps as a sentimental nod to the real Alan Bennett’s artistic history.
The Lady in the Van is both humorous and heartfelt, encapsulating the essence of Bennett’s writing by including it within the story. The interplay between the two main characters is funny, warm and realistic, and the film is, overall, a triumph.