Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour, Jim Broadbent
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Writer: Alan Bennett
There is a fine line between film and theatre that can make adaptations tricky. Just because a story works well on stage does not mean it is guaranteed to work well on film (or vice versa). While there is some overlap between these two mediums, there are also vast differences between their formats that render them almost irreconcilable. Theatre has the advantage of being able to evolve through multiple performances and possesses the ability to interact with and even involve its audience. Film meanwhile is not limited by what it can physically reproduce in front of the audience (or the camera in its case) and allows for more subtlety in its performance. The successful adaptation of a play into a film requires a comprehensive understanding of how both mediums work. Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner fit the bill as both are theatrical legends who have produced marvellous works of film in the past together. Their adaptation of The Lady in the Van is a fine film in its own right and marks an especially successful transition from theatre to film.
This film is the (mostly) true story of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and his encounters with the titular lady in the van Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith). She parks her van within his neighbourhood one fateful day and goes on to stay there for fifteen years. Miss Shepherd, infamous for her eccentricities, discourteous manner and severe lack of hygiene, refuses to be moved or reasoned with and becomes something of a sore spot for the neighbourhood. Nevertheless Alan forms an unlikely bond with her as he finds himself both intrigued and repulsed by her. He seeks to learn more about this woman and perhaps to understand why she lives the life that she does.
Maggie Smith reprises her Olivier Award winning role from the original West End production and gives an outstanding performance that only she could deliver. This character is abrasive, stubborn, eccentric, disingenuous and sad, all qualities that she plays to perfection. One thing I’ve always loved about Smith as an actress is that she has perfected the ‘what the fuck are you talking about’ expression and readily employs it as the disoriented Miss Shepherd. Just like in Downton Abbey she displays an extraordinary ability to make an unpleasant character irresistible as she employs her character’s brusqueness and rudeness to comedic and dramatic effect. One particular scene that I enjoyed was when Miss Shepherd is desperate to park her van in Bennett’s driveway to escape persecution but is too proud to ask for his help. Therefore she tries to entice him into offering her his driveway in a way that she probably considers to be subtle but is actually hilariously and even tragically transparent. The film shows that it can be touching at times as it allows us glimpses of the vulnerability and fear that Miss Shepherd so adamantly keeps hidden. It is this masterful performance by this masterful actress that makes the film work as well as it does.
The film is about more than Maggie Smith and her character though. It is based upon the play and the book of the same name written by Alan Bennett and I think the film comes across as something of a tribute to the man and his work. The film delves into the psyche of Bennett both as a man and as a playwright by making him the film’s protagonist and narrator and also by splitting him into two separate parts: The Writer and The Liver. These two sides of Bennett constantly bicker with one another as they try to keep their occupations as far from each other as possible. Their shared curiosity and vacillation for Miss Shepherd fuels their most interesting and amusing conversations as they try to decide how involved they should get in her life. Bennett is portrayed very well by Alex Jennings who gets the look, the Leeds accent and the mannerisms spot on. The rest of the cast from the main ensemble right down to the bit players is a Who’s Who of actors who have previously appeared in Bennett’s productions and have come together to celebrate the famed writer’s works.
The Lady in the Van has all of the intellect and wit that Alan Bennett is famous for and is a showcase for Maggie Smith’s incredible talents. The humour is a terrific blend of absurdity and irony that delivers a laugh a minute. Bennett’s writing, which has consistently possessed a sharp perception and a distinct self-awareness, allows for some highly intelligent discussions as Bennett contemplates the nature of this character and the bond that they share as he also provides an insight into his process as a writer. The story I think could have been better executed as the explorations of Miss Shepherd’s past could be confusing at times. Overall however this is a film that I enjoyed watching a great deal. It is smart, funny and witty and is a celebration of one of Britain’s greatest writers and also one of its greatest actresses.