Alan Bennett brings his award winning play to the big screen. The play and film in question are a comedy drama about Alan Bennett himself (Alex Jennings) and the van-dwelling lady (Maggie Smith) who took up residence on his driveway in the 1970s and stayed for over a decade. Despite what the title might suggest, and with this being a Bennett production, Alan Bennett is very much the lead character. Alan provides narration not just as a voiceover but as the character onscreen talking to a secondary version of himself. If you’re going to put yourself in your film why not put yourself in their twice? As such your enjoyment of The Lady in the Van is very much limited to how much you enjoy Alan Bennett, or at least Jennings’ interpretation of him.
You will also need a large tolerance for Maggie Smith playing a cantankerous old woman as she features almost as heavily as the faux Bennett. Thankfully I have a high Bennett threshold and find Smith to be the only bearable element of Downton Abbey so could cope with everything that The Lady in the Van had to offer. I’m not suggesting the film is an ordeal but know that some people cannot tolerate certain representations.
The plot is relatively simple. When Alan moves into a house in Camden he is soon introduced to Miss Shepherd, an elderly lady who lives in a van which she moves around outside each residence as the mood takes her. Seeking to ease his conscious more than anything else Alan reluctantly allows her to park her van on his driveway. Initially this is supposed to be a short term solution but neither ever see fit to change the arrangement. As he provides a modicum of care this this stranger he struggles with his mother’s declining health as she slowly loses her faculties back in Alan’s hometown. Much as Alan does not want to equate the two women he frequently finds them occupying the same brain space.
Bennett has written this story numerous times before, Smith has played the same character previously both on stage and on the radio, and director Nicholas Hytner worked with them both on the theatre production. Alex Jennings is the only new element in this project and he tackles the role of Alan by capturing his essence without coming across as a mere imitation. Smith is clearly very comfortable in the role, and in her van, and takes great relish in delivering endless witty lines whilst wearing a night dress and surrounded by filth, all with a degree of pathos thrown in. Meanwhile Bennett and Hytner have successfully managed to expand the existing material to create a film that does not feel like a play. Often play adaptations could easily be imagined on stage but The Lady in the Van feels distinctly cinematic, not least because so much of it takes place outside rather than in a single room.
The Lady in the Van is a fun little oddity exploring loneliness, community, and codependency. Bennett writes himself with a witty self deprecation and Maggie Smith brings the kind of energy her fans have come to expect. If either Bennett or Smith are outside your comfort zone then steer clear otherwise you’re going to enjoy this one.