I have a confession to make, I’ve never seen an Alan Bennett play. That’s not to say I don’t like his work, quite the contrary. While I’ve never seen a live performance of The Lady in the Van, The History Boys, or The Madness of George III, I’m a huge fan of the film adaptations of the latter two pieces, especially History Boys. So when I found out that they were doing an adaptations of another Alan Bennett play, specifically by the same director as The History Boys, Nicholas Hytner, I was intrigued. Throw in Alan Bennett writing the screenplay and lead performances by Dame Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, and you have the formula for what could be another amazing adaptation of Bennet’s work. Well I’m happy to report that The Lady in the Van is right up there with The History Boys as an incredibly fun and enjoyable film on it’s own, even if you’ve never seen the play.
Before I found out about the cast and director, the film’s premise alone made me want to watch. It’s 1970, and Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) has just purchased a house in London’s Camden Town. Right after moving in, he is almost immediately introduced to one of the neighbourhood’s more interesting residents. Miss Mary Shepard, to put it simply, is the titular lady in the van. Homeless, eccentric, catholic, and living off a diet of raw onions, Miss Shepard has made a habit of parking in front of the various houses on Alan’s street, much to the chagrin of his neighbours. Eventually Alan offers his driveway to park the van in order to help her get back on her feet for a few months. That few months turns into 15 years. Over the course of the story, we get the key moments of those 15 years, each a perfect snapshot of the progression of time on their street in Camden Town.
Now, the story is presented as mostly true, in the form of Alan talking to his “writer” self (also played by Jennings) about his thoughts and feelings about his relationship with the mysterious Miss Shepard. Perhaps what makes the story so interesting is the fact that the relationship isn’t perfect. Yes, Alan did let this fussy old woman live in his drive for 15 years, but ultimately it’s the internal conflict we see play out over his desire to have her out of his life versus his caring side that drives the story forward. Combine that with Mary Shepard’s purely batty behaviour and you’re left wondering yourself how you might handle this kind of situation.
Said batty behaviour and internal conflict are presented beautifully by leads Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, who really give it their all. What’s compelling about Maggie Smith’s performance is that while it’s a character we’ve seen her play before, you feel differently about it. Quartet and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel both provide examples of Smith’s portrayal of fussy, eccentric, and cold-hearted old women who you at first you hate and then possibly warm up to at the end of the story. In this story however, much like in Alex Jennings’ portrayal of Alan Bennett, the undercurrent of pity for Miss Shepard means that we’re never particularly fond of her nor despise her, we only feel sorry for the poor woman. The fact Maggie Smith can take something she’s mastered and still tweak it to keep it relatively fresh shows why she is still considered one of the best.
In addition the amazing performances, Nicholas Hytner’s direction and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography bring Alan Bennett’s story to the screen in a way that is visually stimulating and familiar to fans of their previous Bennett adaptations. It also helps that the film was shot at the same house where Mr. Bennett and Miss Shepard lived for all those years. Side note, every cast member of The History Boys film appears to have some minor role, including Frances de la Tour who plays one of Bennett’s neighbours. Perhaps it’s just cause I’m a fan, but I thought was a really nice touch.
There’s a lot to love about The Lady in the Van. The wonderful story, the hilarious dialogue, the amazing cast and crew, there’s something for everyone. It’s true that there’s something to be said about seeing a play in the way it’s meant to be seen, on stage. But when you have wonderful films like this that bring the play to the screen for everyone to enjoy, you can’t help but feel grateful for the talents behind these projects. But, more importantly, it’s not just Alan Bennett who we have to thank, but Miss Shepard herself. Here’s to you Miss Shepard.