Monday, 16 November 2015

Film: 'The Lady in the Van'

As good as I hoped it would be, this film is based on playwright Alan Bennett's original stage play of the same name about a long-term, real-life situation which developed, opened out considerably with a much larger cast for the big screen.

Maggie Smith plays the cantankerous, embittered, ungrateful and enigmatic Miss Shepherd (with distinctly dubious habits concerning personal hygiene) living in her van which she parks on the road in Camden, north London, near Bennett's own home. Threatened with having committed a parking offence, she tells Bennett she'll put it in his driveway for just a few weeks - which actually turns out to be right until her death fifteen years later.
Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (voice uncannily accurate) in a double role as Bennett the writer and the same character trying to get on with his 'normal' life - allowing the two of them to talk to each other, replacing the internal monologues of the stage version. (I thought this the least successful aspect of the film adaptation. A simple voice-over or talk direct to camera would have been more effective and looked less strange.)
The film follows Bennett's impatient turns with this old lady imposter to whom he is too timid to say to her face what he really feels about her unwelcome presence - so he just puts up with her with muttered grumblings to himself. Meanwhile, gradually more is revealed about the lady's past, including her young years, heavily influenced by an early religious phase, the sensibilities of which have carried on into her present old age. (The film's very opening minute also tells us something that happened to her which isn't fully revealed until much later, something which she carries as a burden throughout the rest of the story.)

Although I didn't see the stage version there was a radio adaptation a few years back, with Smith again, but with Alan Bennett playing himself (as he did on stage), a version which I really liked - so I was to a degree familiar with the story. 

As one comes to expect, the writer gives us a number of really funny one-liners, virtually all arising from the lady's intransigence in her determination to get her own way and the put-open Bennett's reaction to having to face up to her unwanted presence daily. 

There's a cracking backing cast of near-neighbours, chipping in with their various thoughts on the lady's presence, some more tolerant than others, and her effect on the neighbourhood, including Roger Allam - as well as shady ex-policeman Jim Broadbent who knows her 'secret' and puts his knowledge to self-gaining use - and, significantly, the redoubtable Frances de la Tour as neighbour Ursula Vaughan Williams, someone whom I did actually once meet in person at a barbecue party in London at the time when this 'van lady' would have been in her terminal years at Bennett's address. I had no idea that U.V.W. and Bennett were actually living so close to each other, and had I known I would have wanted at least to have mentioned my admiration for him instead of confining my questions to her late husband's compositions. De La Tour's portrayal was actually not that far off from the Ursula V.W. I remember.

There are very brief cameos from some (or all?) of the original boys from another of Bennett's major successes, 'The History Boys' - on both stage in London and Broadway as well as in the film, directed as in this film, by Nicholas Hytner. I recognised five of the 'boys' - now all grown into or approaching middle age. In addition, Frances de la Tour was a prominent member of the cast of both the stage production and the film.

This is Maggie Smith's film, of course - one of her very best screen performances for some time - playing someone with few, if any, endearing features, yet managing to hold it all together most convincingly.
If the film's penultimate scene was somewhat over-the-top it rounded things off nicely enough, so I'll forgive it for being so. Also, in the very final scene there's a glimpse of the great Yorkshireman himself, Bennett, coming into view on his bike to see himself being filmed in the persona of Alex Jennings.

I liked it a lot. With little to cavil about, I give it...........................8.


  1. The scene on the ambulance tailgate brought a tear to the eye

    1. Yes, I can understand that, J.G. It's a situation that you'd have been familiar with more than a lot of us -even though I myself was in St John Ambulance for a couple of years. I think that if the Shepherd character hadn't been such an unsympathetic figure it might have affected me deeper than it did.

  2. This sounds like one I will enjoy.

    1. It's a goody, F.B., and utterly original, being based as it is, on true events. Do see.