“I was trying to do her a good turn, but it came with thoughts of strangulation.” That’s the frustrated voice of real-life writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) explaining how he felt after yet another attempt to aid the homeless and all-round cantankerous old woman Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) in the new eccentric U.K. comedy/drama from director Nicholas Hytner, The Lady in the Van.
Based on what the opening title tells us is a mostly true story, Shepherd – if that’s her real name – was an elderly woman who lived her later years in a ramshackle old van. For whatever reason, she appeared to favor the area of Camden in London as a place to park and perhaps to hideaway. Enter author and playwright Alan Bennett.
It’s the early seventies, and Bennett has just bought a house in the somewhat artsy, upscale area of Camden Town. Among his neighbors is poet and author Ursula Vaughn Williams (Frances de la Tour), wife to the late English composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams. It’s not long before Bennett encounters the homeless Shepherd and her van parked outside his home. She needs a push, telling Bennett she thinks her battery has failed, though she doesn’t know why, insisting she had only just filled it with water. “Was it distilled water?” Bennett asks. “It was holy water,” Shepherd responds with a dismissive tone, “So it doesn’t matter if it was distilled or not.”
The playwright and the old lady form something of an adversarial friendship. Having parked semi-permanently at the side of the road by Bennett’s house because the Virgin Mary told her to – “What does the Virgin Mary know about parking?” Bennett asks with some dismay – the old lady finds herself subject to the taunts of loutish passersby, not to mention some uncalled for night time visits from a mysterious, elderly gentlemen (Jim Broadbent) who appears to be blackmailing her.
Trying to do the right thing, Bennett allows the woman and her van to park in his driveway, off the road. It’s meant to be for a just a short while. It lasted fifteen years. “Does she use your toilet?” asks a government social aide worker. When Bennett answers, yes, the aide tells him of potential legal trouble. “She could claim Squatters Rights.”
Based on his book, which became a West End play, then a BBC Radio 4 drama, The Lady in the Van is the kind of fanciful crowd-pleaser for an older crowd that works so well not because of its subject matter – though as things develop, the mounting intrigue surrounding the truth behind Mary’s past can’t fail to pull you in – but how scenes are played out between its two leads, Smith and Jennings.
Successfully adopting the writer’s odd but melodious sounding northern accent, Jennings fully captures the spirit of a younger Alan Bennett in both sound and looks as he does his frustrated best to ensure the old lady’s safety. “Writing,” the playwright tells us in a voice-over, “Is talking to oneself.” Living alone, Bennett talks to himself through his writing all the time, a device illustrated by having two Bennett’s in the room at the same moment; one in front of the typewriter, the other observing things through his window while passing comments. From what we learn near the film’s conclusion, Bennett found out much about Mary Shepherd’s life after she passed away in 1989, but for narrative purposes in his book, his play, the radio drama, and this film, he invented the order of things. That’s why what we see is mostly true, though as the character tells us seated behind his typewriter, considering the absurdly eccentric nature of the old lady’s story, how could he make this up?
Having already played the role in all its previous incarnations, Mary Shepherd is a character made to order for Dame Maggie Smith. Other equally experienced British actors would be perfectly fine portraying the belligerent old lady, but when the woman tells a social worker to pass all her messages to a Mr. Bennett at house number twenty-three, adding, “But don’t take any notice of him. He’s a communist… possibly,” somehow the line sounds so much funnier when delivered deadpan by Maggie Smith.
Interestingly, the supporting cast in smaller roles were cast members of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, including Francis de la Tour as friendly neighbor Ursula, Dominic Cooper as an actor starring in one of the writer’s current London plays, and American TV Late Night talk show host James Corden as a cockney trader in a street market. You’ll even catch a glance of the real Alan Bennett as he pulls up on his bike near the conclusion of the film as a plaque in the memory of Mary Shepherd is unveiled on the front wall of the real Camden Town house where Bennett lived.
There’s a comically, fanciful concluding scene before the fade out that may at first seem simply odd or misplaced involving an ascension to the heavens, though looking back on what we learn of Mary’s colorful past and her religious beliefs, the moment works better on reflection than it does while watching it. The Lady in the Van is hugely entertaining.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)