Reuniting Alan Bennett with Maggie Smith on screen, Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady In The Van deals a hilarious, thoughtprovoking play between life and fiction.
Vagabondby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A film based on a stage play based on a book based on a diary. In each subsequent incarnation, the original risks being lost or distorted. And yet, with The Lady In The Van, the reverse seems to have happened – a kind of intensification. And something else. As well as cleverly expanding the story of his reluctant friendship, writer Alan Bennett in the film of The Lady In The Van also reveals a little more of himself than he has done before. The lady, of course, is Maggie Smith at her most award-worthy. She played the eccentric van dweller Miss Shepherd on stage and is now a show-stopping turn on film. Cantankerous, ungrateful, taking no prisoners in her testy interactions with well-meaning local residents, she creates a character who is original, infuriating and intriguing. Smith makes Miss Shepherd comical yet not a figure of fun. She has a kind of “vagabond nobility” Bennett says. You can see why she fascinated him and why he allowed her to live in her derelict van in his drive for 15 years. Though not through kindness, he hastens to clarify. “It’s just laziness really,” he shrugs self-effacingly.
Bennett in the film is split into two characters, both played with sensitive humour by Alex Jennings. One is the dispassionate author Bennett who sits at his typewriter in the window looking out at the van and does the writing, and the other the timid everyday Bennett who does the living – “after all, writing’s just talking to yourself”, one half of him says to the other. “I live, you write.” One scolds the other about his inability to say no to Miss Shepherd. It’s a clever way of dramatising a diary. Interwoven with his tolerance of Miss Shepherd’s unreasonable behaviour is his guilt at his ambivalent feelings towards his mother. He is willing to let an ungrateful old lady live on his doorstep whilst he doesn’t gloss over his reluctance to visit his uncomplaining mother in Yorkshire, who is slowly slipping into dementia – and who, visiting him in London, disapproves of the Miss Shepherd situation.
And Miss Shepherd in turn disapproves of the young men she sees leaving Bennett’s house late at night – a willingness by Bennett to reveal an additional insight into his private life that isn’t present in any of the previous versions. The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner and reunites many of his History Boys alumni in the cast – Frances De La Tour as one of the many neighbours in Bennett’s arty North London crescent whose kindness Miss Shepherd rebuffs, James Corden as a cheeky market stall holder, with cameos from Russell Tovey and Dominic Cooper. Jim Broadbent and Roger Allam are memorable characters.
The Lady In The Van fulfils all expectations of a collaboration between the two national treasures of Bennett and Smith and is pure enjoyment, especially for pre-existing fans of Bennett’s work. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times yet simultaneously layered and thoughtprovoking. “My niche is old ladies,” Bennett reflects ruefully, “I’m stuck with it”. And the dual story line of Miss Shepherd and his mother contrasts his capacity for caring as a writer and as a son. Miss Shepherd’s story is given depth and poignancy as her surprising past life is gradually revealed and she is also given one joyous moment – a freewheeling wheelchair ride that actually happened in real life. And she’s finally rewarded in the film with a glorious apotheosis. Throughout, Bennett’s screenplay wittily teases the audience about the relationship of the writer with his characters. Blurring the relationship even more, the film was shot in Bennett’s house in Gloucester Crescent where the real events took place and Bennett himself cycles up to make a brief appearance on location as the filming ends.
The Lady In The Van is released on 13th November 2015 in the UK