What if Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham had ended up as a cantankerous bag lady? Based on Alan Bennett’s memoir and stage play, The Lady in the Van answers this question by telling the “mostly true story” of Miss Shepherd (Smith), who is temporarily invited to park her van on Bennett’s (Jennings) London driveway in 1973. Her stay ends up lasting 15 years, with the playwright and the bigoted squatter developing an unlikely friendship. The charming odd-couple premise might set off alarm bells, but Hytner’s adaptation strikes the right balance between the wryly comedic and the poignant. The director relies on the meta but never crosses into the cloyingly self-reflexive, and any smugness is circumvented by the surreal doppelganger division of the real Bennett (“you live life”) and the writer Bennett (“I’ll write about it”). This balancing act is further exemplified by the two leads, especially Smith, who never descends into parody. You’d expect only greatness from the actress, but her irascibly eccentric performance is funny, affecting and truly memorable. The big-hearted film’s occasional lack of focus is eclipsed by the performances and insights into British middle-class guilt and an artist’s search for a subject.
The Lady in the Van | Directed by Nicholas Hytner (UK 2015) with Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings. Starts April 14.
Originally published in issue #148, April 2016.