BASED on “mostly true” events, The Lady in The Van (Cert 12A, 104 mins) is the latest movie from the pen of accomplished playwright and English national treasure Alan Bennett.
Starring the inimitable Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd – the lady in question – the film covers a period of Bennett’s life in the late 1970s when he moved to London.
Filmed on location at the house where Bennett resided, the plot is immediately and effortlessly engrossing: Bennett allows an elderly, itinerant woman who lives in the back of her van (inset, right) to park her clapped-out vehicle in his driveway as an act of charity in order for her to secure some welfare benefits.
He expects the stay to last for a couple of weeks, but to the chagrin of Bennett and his neighbours, she ends up staying for more than 15 years.
Opening with Bennett (Alex Jennings) giving a florid description of Miss Shepherd’s particular odour (amongst other things: a blend of wet wool, raw onions, and lavender talc), we are initially compelled to watch out of a sheer, grotesque fascination.
The laboured relationship between the pair is captivating – with the curmudgeonly Miss Shepherd knowing full well how to milk every drop of human kindness from the too-timid Bennett, who for his part can never quite muster the courage to ask her to leave.
It quickly becomes clear that deeper motives and desires are being fulfilled beneath the surface. With Bennett, we see a struggle in finding his place in the world, understanding his sexuality and managing his creative success.
Bennett is a paradox – perennially apologetic, he soft-foots through life despite a deep inner desire to stomp, and he finds himself caring for a stranger, while unable to care for his declining mother.
There is a touch of magic realism in the telling of The Lady in the Van, with Jennings often appearing on screen twice in the same shot.
There’s Bennett the writer, perched omnisciently in a chair by the window, shaking his head and gently goading the Bennett who is at an utter loss with how to get Miss Shepherd out of the habit of using the downstairs toilet.
The back and forth between these two personas is littered with Bennett’s characteristically wry and acerbic insights into human nature.
While Jennings – whose fame as an actor on stage far surpasses his work in cinema – is perfectly cast in this role and does an immense job, it is hard not to focus on the remarkable performance of Smith. No stranger to the role, she has played Miss Shepherd in both a radio dramatisation and a stage production of The Lady in the Van.
On screen, she is simply irrepressible. Underpinning the delightful obstinacy that makes Miss Shepherd such a captivating character is a potent sense of tragic fragility, and Smith is able to skilfully simultaneously embody both qualities. This teeters high in a career filled with amazing performances.
Even allowing for an ending that felt far too-syrupy for such an emotionally resonant second act, The Lady in the Van is a remarkable piece of film.
It is a treat that unfolds tentatively, deepening as it goes; a heartfelt and whimsical journey back into a parochial past where the concept of community possessed a very different sense of meaning.
Bolstered by the inherent comedy of the odd-couple situation that Bennett found himself in, there is room to explore the extraordinarily real relationship between two people from different generations, who are both split between their idealised and actual selves, and who both exist uncomfortably on the peripheries of society.