“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”
It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.
This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life.
And in Smith’s hands, one can see the manipulative power she must have wielded. Fearsomely unapologetic, even Christmas presents from children are received with a scowl, and brazenly haughty despite the reality of her guilt-ridden loneliness, she nonetheless winkles her way under Bennett’s skin. And fiercely protective over the details of her past, hints of her younger years as a pianist, a French speaker, a nun, slowly spill forth, providing the film with a certain narrative propulsion. It’s a scabrously funny performance too, dry wit infused into every line making her a joy to watch.
Hytner can’t resist the opportunity to load, possibly even overload, the rest of the film with his theatrical connections though. For the upper middle class residents of Gloucester Crescent, casting the likes of Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay just about works for the fruity luvvies who are Bennett’s friends and neighbours. Shoehorning in cameos for all eight original History Boys is pushing it though – the bits of rough in their 70s wigs are fine but James Corden’s vicious-tongued market stallholder feels misjudged.
So it’s a rare supporting character that actually breaks through to become someone interesting. Gwen Taylor manages it as Bennett’s Mam, kept at arm’s length by him even with his fondness for her, and so perhaps suggesting that the relationship with Miss Shepherd had some root in familial guilt. And Cecilia Noble’s social worker comes closest to interrogating Bennett’s actions with any degree of insight but only to a very limited degree as writer and director collude to keep things from digging too deep.
In recompense, there’re flashbacks into Miss Shepherd’s past which seek to give context and an odd sub-plot with Jim Broadbent trying to do threatening which doesn’t really pay off, but at its heart, The Lady in the Van is by far at its best when it is a whimsical comedy anchored by two cracking performances from Alex Jennings and the truly extraordinary Dame Maggie Smith.