It was playwright Alan Bennett who said, “Life is generally something that happens elsewhere”, which is certainly how he must have felt saddled with an old lady who camped outside his Camden home for 15 years. This is the feature film written by Bennett of his play of the same name, a semi-autobiographical tale of his relationship with homeless Mary Shepherd – a role reprised again by Maggie Smith after 16 years.
Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) moves to leafy Gloucester Cresent in Camden in the late 1960s and encounters Miss Shepherd (Smith), an easily irritated and rude homeless lady who lives in a van on his street. Having been moved on by other neighbours for various reasons, and with parking restrictions coming into force, Bennett takes pity on her and offers her his driveway as a temporary measure that sees her stay until her death.
This is the ultimate vanity project for Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner – who directed the play and radio versions. With Smith onboard again, the big-screen version is clinched, as is an Oscar nod perhaps. All three have had time to revisit and tweak the material to make it the witty and undoubtedly charming tale it is. However, this would have been a gamble was it not for the strong casting of Jennings opposite Smith.
Jennings triumphantly plays both Bennett characters – the man and the writer, like a bickering married couple, evoking the true Bennett spirit in both: He is the hen-pecked worrier with an (unhealthy) obsession with the lives of old ladies (his mother and Miss Shepherd) and one of life’s self-depreciating cynics. Real-life Bennett takes an honest introspective look at things, but has Jennings to thank for lifting that off the page.
Smith is known for her cantankerous role-playing on both the big and small screens. Here, she encapsulates all that we love about her stubborn, independent screen spirit in one juicy role. However, her Shepherd is far from two-dimensional, rather a chameleon of emotion, a contradiction of ideas, highlighting the fragility of London’s social community cohesion too. She is also defiant to the outside world she distrusts, making her a fascinating lead agitator.
Connecting with Shepherd is key to Bennett’s film, or it becomes a chore as a purely character-driven piece with little else by way of plot. Hytner’s direction tries to keep some momentum going to counter this. There is the mystery of ‘Mary’ – or is it ‘Margaret’ – but again, this all plays out within the confines of the street, albeit, the odd trip to Broadstairs, Kent. The treat is how her character flexes with Bennett’s in the highs and lows, while they have a constant battle of minds.
It’s also how they unwittingly unite to react to others – queue the comical moments the social worker feels ‘some hostility’ from Bennett. There are also some deliciously colourful cameos from Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour and the like as an assortment of snobby neighbours who all disapprove of Shepherd while equally find her predicament quite ‘quaint’ and their local star attraction.
It is a case of North vs South (or rather London) superiority again, as Bennett’s Northern roots (and mother) are the butt of all cheap jokes rolled out when the script feels wanting, becoming a little passé as a result. The true wit is had from what Bennett the writer thinks of his ‘mummy’s boy’ alter ego, as well as how Shepherd picks up on this.
The Lady In The Van is both intimate in its core relationship and formal in its social commentary arising from the situation – highly apt in today’s austerity climate but executed in a pleasingly comical light. Bennett fans are likely to be sold (there’s even a cameo), but it’s perhaps those who admire Smith that will try this in support of her veteran talent while, just maybe, stumbling upon that of Bennett’s in the process.