Adapted from his own play, based on his memoir, Alan Bennett’s “The Lady In The Van” is a wonderfully poignant meditation of the nobility of the human spirit and the importance of kindness, compassion and understanding.
It tells the [mostly] true story of Bennett’s unusual friendship with an eccentric homeless woman called Miss Mary Shepherd, whom Bennett allowed to park her van in his driveway as a temporary arrangement; an arrangement that spanned fifteen years. At first, Miss Shepherd appears to be a harmless, if cantankerous neighbourhood character but through Bennett’s tremendous screenplay, the layers and mysteries are peeled away until we find the truth of her story and her life and are forced to reflect on our own assumptions and prejudices.
There’s a delicacy to the drama, bolstered by Bennett’s marvellously dry and pithy narration (Alex Jennings providing a note perfect proxy Bennett), and the deceptively gentle approach allows some big ideas to sneak their way in, much as Miss Shepherd insinuates herself more and more into Bennett’s life.
Director Nicholas Hytner does a terrific job of making the humbly domestic settings feel cinematic and broad without losing any of the intimacy and the production is enriched by so many clever and subtle touches to indicate the passage of time, my personal favourite being the ever changing standard BT telephone which adorns Bennett’s desk.
As mentioned, Jennings is excellent as Bennett – especially given the cleverly realised narrative conceit of Bennett’s habit of talking to himself – but the film revolves around the performance of Dame Maggie Smith. Smith is at her most mesmeric and moving as the troubled and tragic elderly woman, bringing nobility and pathos which transcend the impoverished circumstances of the character. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches with great turns from Frances De La Tour and Roger Allam. It’s a particularly nice touch that the film includes cameos from the entire surviving cast of Bennett’s “The History Boys” but it’s around Jennings and Smith that the movie casts its spell and it’s a powerful enchantment indeed.
Beautifully played, intricately constructed and deliciously layered, this is an absolute instant classic. Heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure, this whimsical true life fantasy is an uplifting fable of pride, regret and kindness. Magnificent.