The Lady In The Van: Film Review
Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Based on renowned English writer Alan Bennett's play and reuniting the star with the director of the Olivier Award original play, it is, as the title card suggests, a mostly true story.
The one woman acting tornado that is Maggie Smith returns to the role she made famous in London's West End as Miss Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman who lived in a van in Camden around the 1970s when Bennett inhabited the region.
With all the neighbourhood turning their back on Mary and seeing her as an eyesore and a beggar, Bennett (an uncanny impression and nuanced performance by Alex Jennings) allows her to park her van in his driveway. However, rather than this sojourn being a brief one, and much to Bennett's endless chagrin, Mary ends up staying some 15 years - and despite all of Alan's desires, becomes a part of her life.
Simply put, those who don't know Alan Bennett and won't be able to appreciate Jennings' spot-on enunciation and diction of the playwright whose Talking Heads made him famous, Maggie Smith will be the star attraction.
With her sheer force of presence and quirkiness that's a softer Downton approach, this Dowager of the driveway is pretty much going to strike a chord with anyone who's got a soft spot for cheeky irascibility. She's not loved by the inhabitants of the road and doesn't fit in with their middle class aspirations and judgements (the neighbours are wonderfully headed up by the ever solid presence of Roger Allam and Frances De La Tour), but there's a parallel with Bennett's mother and his terribly English guilt at leaving her alone up north.
Hytner employs a steady hand with the direction and the gentle story, which is as parked as the van in the driveway. Splitting Jennings in two to show the conflict and the consciences is a nifty touch and Jennings brings an edge and an empathy to both sides of Bennett the conflicted do-gooder and Bennett the writer looking for inspiration.
But it's Smith whom the film favours, as the layers of reason for her condition gently peel back. And while the emotion of these reveals never quite hits a crescendo or catharsis worthy of the journey, there is plenty of humour on the whimsical way. (No wonder given she's reprising a role she's already made famous on the stage).
Nobody emerges as a fully formed character and there is an odd touch with the real life Bennett being inserted into the narrative towards the end, but you can't deny The Lady In The Van has an amiability and an affability that makes it a gently easy watch, guaranteed to do well with an older audience.