Based on Alan Bennett’s memoir and adapted from his 1999 West End play, The Lady In The Van features Alex Jennings as the great man himself, and is the true story of Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), an elderly transient who parked her beaten up old Bedford van in Bennett’s driveway and ended up staying there for fifteen years. The film’s a total delight, offering Maggie Smith a gift of a role as the obstinate, curmudgeonly and sometimes downright rude, Miss Shepherd, while Jennings’ assured turn as Bennett is so much more than just an uncannily accurate impersonation; indeed, here we get two Alan Bennetts for the price of one – the man who writes about his life and the one who actually lives it. With this simple but brilliant device, the film has a lot to say about the very nature of writing and the way in which real events are sometimes adapted for the purposes of entertainment. ‘But that didn’t really happen,’ writer Bennett will occasionally announce, like some glum member of a Greek chorus lurking in the background.
The story opens with a brief glimpse into Miss Shepherd’s past, the single traumatic event that initiated her deterioration into vagrancy, and then we witness her arrival in the street in Camden Town where Bennett has just purchased a house. We meet the other inhabitants of the street and witness their reactions to having this tragic creature parked nearby, an interesting mixture of liberal guilt and open disgust. Miss Shepherd’s toiletry arrangements are rudimentary to say the very least, while her open disdain for anyone who tries to help her, would probably move Ghandi to violence.
There’s so much to enjoy here. Bennett’s wry asides are sometimes cripplingly funny, Maggie Smith gives a triumphant performance in a role she was born to play and there are cameos from some big names, including one from each of the boys in the film of The History Boys. While much of the emphasis is on comedy, the film’s latter stages are deeply affecting and more sensitive viewers may find they have occasional recourse to a pack of tissues, and yet the script easily resists cheap sentiment.
Perfectly judged, beautifully acted and cannily scripted, there’s really not much here to criticise – just plenty to enjoy.