The Lady in the Van (12A)

As Maggie Smith drives her van into cinemas, George Severs went to see The Lady in the Van - is the Alan Bennett-scripted comedy as good as his other legendary work?

23rd November 2015

The Lady In The Van is the screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, and recounts his acquaintance with the eponymous Lady, a Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) who parked her live-in van on his driveway temporarily and stayed 15 years.

Alex Jennings is marvellous as Bennett, not only in his uncanny mimicry of his appearance and soft drawl, but in his subtly separate embodiments of the two Bennetts (writer and man) who appear simultaneously on screen. Smith, too, is superb, bringing charisma to what is on paper a rather unappealing character.

Gradually, the feeling develops that one is watching two films. One is the story of Miss Shepherd, a well-made if predictable and emotionally light British comedy that offers few surprises but consistent laughs. Bennett’s neighbours feature heavily, an amalgam of 1970’s London media types, affluent but nagged by guilt, manifesting in the glorious moment one of them tries to feed Miss Shepherd by donating a crème brûlée. Class, of course, is the punchline these films favour.

"Smith is superb, bringing charisma to what is on paper a rather unappealing character."

But there’s also the other film, the story of Bennett, shown in events but also (more interestingly) via the distortion of Miss Shepherd’s story by his authorial lens. Here, there are far less laughs; instead, we get sober contemplation in the form of bickering self-dialogue about his demented mother, his work, his life, and why exactly he’s letting Miss Shepherd stay. However, Bennett’s half of the film dominates; the dual selves quietly commenting on story mechanics and manipulations of truth, as well as the litany of The History Boys cast members in minor roles, generates a detached, meta feeling to proceedings, and often robs Miss Shepherd’s story of its emotional urgency.

Overall, a very enjoyable film, deftly directed and performed. Shame, therefore, that its two halves struggle to work together before we reach the closing scenes.

Rating: 7/10

More like this: My Old Lady (2014)

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