Director: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam
Maggie Smith’s acid-tongued duchess is such a familiar feature on our screens – “Gosford Park” and, more recently, “Downton Abbey” – that it’s almost too easy to forget the depth and variety of her 60 year career. Oscars for “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” and “California Suite” and a distinguished stage career that saw her play Desdemona to Olivier’s “Othello” are just some of the highlights. But, in “The Lady In The Van” she takes on what is probably her least glamorous role, yet there’s still just a smidge of the crusty dowager lingering beneath the surface.
Based on the Alan Bennett book and stage play of the same name, the film sees Smith play the destitute Miss Shepherd, who lives in her van in Camden’s leafy Gloucester Crescent in the mid-60s. After run-ins with the neighbours and drunken yobs, she and her van eventually take up residence on Bennett’s driveway. And that’s where she stays for the next 15 years, during which time Bennett looks into her background and discovers a remarkable life.
It’s based on a true story. Miss Shepherd became a permanent fixture on the crescent and his driveway, but this was no loveable little old lady. Without a sense of humour, any gratitude for the kindnesses that came her way or the slightest hint of self pity, she was also funny without meaning to be, making her the object of some affection among the locals. Although there was nothing likeable about the squalor that was her van.
Bennett weaves themes like community spirit and loneliness into the story, as well as looking at how he and the cantankerous old lady become dependent on each other, much to their mutual surprise. Although he’s at pains to point out to a social worker that he’s not her carer. At the same time, there’s the parallel story of Bennett’s relationship with his mother, who lives in Yorkshire. Initially, she’s an active elderly lady who just wants to see more of her beloved son, but by the end of the film her memory’s declined and she’s living in a home. He’s essentially bookended by two very different women, who both need his care and attention but in contrasting ways.
Maggie Smith is as glorious as you would expect as Miss Shepherd and it’s a joy to see her so far away from the costumes and dialogue of “Downton”. She’s eccentric, fiercely independent and proud yet, beneath it all, vulnerable and scared. And in her layers of extraordinary clothes, she has a strangely androgynous look, not a woman but simply a human being.
As Bennett, Alex Jennings has become the go-to actor for the role. Having played the author on stage and screen more times than he cares to remember, he’s got it down to a fine art, but this time we get a double helping. One is the writer, the other the person: they talk to each other, grumble, argue and disagree on a regular basis. It’s been done before – think Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” – but here it’s too heavy handed for what is essentially a serious story but with a light touch.
The combination of two national treasures like Smith and Bennett – they first worked together in “A Private Function” in 1984 – is hugely appealing, so much so that the film is getting saturation distribution. On the face of it, “The Lady In The Van” could be seen as another film for the so-called grey market, but this is something with a genuinely wider relevance and the blend of sharpness and sensitivity that always goes with Bennett. Fans will love it. And so will newbies.