Bennett (The History Boys) adapts his much-loved memoir and stage play to the screen, with the ineffable Maggie Smith (Best Exotic, Quartet) in the title role as The Lady in the Van. In a cleverly self-aware script, directed by the National Theatre’s Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) Bennett plays with fact, fiction and his own identity in a tragi-comic tale that is both universal, and as British as afternoon tea.
Bennett’s script features his characteristic barbed wit and social satire against the British; his working class roots and his nouveau middle-class-ness, and that of his well-to-do Camden neighbours. While it may not be laugh-out-loud funny for most, it has many marvellous lines delivered at speed (I didn’t have time to laugh), never labours it’s jokes, never spares anyone’s expense (I wonder what the neighbours think?) and manages to switch from comedy to tragedy often in mid-line. Yes, there is a kind of redemption for Miss Sheppard and for Bennett himself, and of course, this is an artfully constructed mix of fact and fiction than Bennett is happy to punch through the ‘fourth wall’ at us. Which, somehow, in the confessions of ‘what should have been said’ and ‘what wasn’t said’ makes it more real and more touching, not less.
The supporting cast includes veterans Francis De La Tour (Hugo), Roger Allam, Deborah Findley and a sleazy ex-policeman Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas); younger faces include most of the now-established History Boys, Dominic Cooper (An Education), James Corden, Russell Tovey; Clare Foy, Eleanor Matsuura (Spooks), and Dermot Crowley (Calvary) round off the cameos.
A central conceit in this knowing script is there are two Bennetts on-screen – the writer and the ordinary Joe – reflecting Bennett’s well-documented indecisive dithering; both played by Jennings in a can’t-see-the-join performance, it shows Bennett literally talking to himself in the self-deprecating (almost self-loathing) exchanges. Alex Jennings captures the dry nasal tone of the real Bennett, but never quite the essence of the man; you can see Jennings performing Bennett, in a way the real, unpretentious Bennett never does – despite being a lauded actor-writer-satirist himself.
Bennett acknowledges much of his career was writing about old ladies, based on his mother’s generation. TV’s Gwen Taylor is Mrs. Bennett, a subtle, sympathetic performance. The self analysing Bennett realises his guilt over leaving his mother with dementia is a motivator for his charity toward the difficult Miss Sheppard, a charity that is in large part a self-inflicted punishment.
And there is an awful lot of guilt weighing on people’s lives – Bennett’s English working class guilt for abandoning his mother for the bright lights of artsy London, and his listless homosexual affairs; while Miss Sheppard drowns in Catholic guilt for an alleged hit-and-run fatality years before.
So much of the script is taken up with Bennett arguing with himself, trying to resist writing about yet another old lady; which is difficult for him given she is a stock-in-trade character literally on his doorstep.
Which brings us to Miss Sheppard, played magnificently by Smith, combining her curmudgeonly Best Exotic Marigold Hotel performance with the haughtiness of Quartet (and indeed, TV’s Downton). As Miss Sheppard’s hidden history is revealed, the mentally fragile, fiercely independent, much abused Mary Sheppard becomes Margaret, promising young concert pianist broken down by Catholic nuns and the law. It is an astonishing late-life performance by Smith proving, as if any reminder were necessary, she is one of the greatest actors working today.
Like Bennett and Hytner’s earlier collaboration, The History Boys, The Lady in the Van runs out of steam in it’s finale, a ghostly affair of typical Bennett whimsy, a theatrical encore to give Miss Sheppard, and us, a proper send-off. Forgive it it’s faults. It’s British. RC
The Lady in the Van (2015)
Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Adaptation
Running time: 104 mins.
Cast: Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith, Francis De La Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent, Gwen Taylor, Deborah Findley,Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Russell Tovey, Clare Foy