The Lady in the Van (2015)

Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings tearing up the neighbourhood

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Maggie Smith (Miss Shepherd), Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett), Roger Allam (Rufus), Deborah Findley (Pauline), Jim Broadbent (Underwood), Claire Foy (Lois), Frances de la Tour (Ursula Vaughan Williams)

This screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play is entertaining and a feast of good acting, even if not a lot actually really happens in it. Nicholas Hytner directs, as he did with the original National Theatre production, with Maggie Smith also reprising her role as the titular bag lady. Interestingly the theatrical device of two versions of Alan Bennett  (as the narrator) is also carried over from the film, with Alex Jennings playing both Bennett and his “Bennett the Author” persona.

Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is an elderly bag lady who lives out of a broken down van which she insists painting a garish bright yellow. Befriended by ‘neighbour’ Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) she moves the van onto his drive – and stays for 15 years. The film chronicles their unlikely friendship, as well as Bennett’s conflict with himself over his motives (in this and in everything else) and slowly reveals Mrs. Shepherd’s background.

It’s a witty and entertaining meandering film that oddly feels rather like the biggest budget home movie in the world, a sort of National Theatre party with the action taking place in Alan Bennett’s real home, Hytner himself popping up as an un-named character (as well as appearing on screen at the end with the real Bennett) and its dozens of cameos from British theatre, not least cameo appearances from all the cast of The History Boys (a rather distracting eye-spy game when you notice it). This doesn’t make it not fun – its a delight to see so many great actors at work – it just feels a little odd.

What probably keeps this from being impossibly smug is that it is actually a very acute (and self accusatory) examination of the author himself and the nature of writing. Bennett is not afraid at every point to question his motives and to accuse writers of exploiting those around them for material. Of course this is slightly distanced by the device of the “two” Alan Bennett’s, but this is pretty much essential to dramatise a conversation a man has with himself without using voiceover. Alex Jennings is, by the way, terrific in both roles – a wonderful mimic, but also really understands the psychology of the part and makes the contrasts between the two Bennett’s immediately clear.

Maggie Smith though is the star here and she is a shining one. She brings not only her usual wit and comic timing to the part,but she also is able to demonstrate with a few beats, or a small aside, years of pain and loneliness. She makes a woman who is basically quite unpleasant and difficult, into someone you care deeply about. A late sequence of her playing the piano – music being something she has avoided for years – is deeply moving because of the simplicity and genuine feeling she plays the moment with.

Hytner directs with a smooth unfussiness and a great deal of polish – I’ve always thought he is a natural at film directing, and he resists the temptation for visual flashiness. It goes without saying that he is a superb actors director. The final act of this film however doesn’t quite click into place – the comment on giving Miss Shepherd “the ending she would have wanted” doesn’t quite work and the final conversion with a decreased Miss Shepherd a scene too far. It’s an anecdote rather than a story – and a good anecdote well told – but not something I can imagine wanting or needing to see again.

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