The Lady in the Van

 

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The alliance of Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith proves to be an unalloyed joy.

 
Lady in the Van

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith as the lady in question

 

Alan Bennett is a British institution for a reason. His writing is observant, acerbic, compassionate, courageous, intensely witty and unashamedly English. And this, an adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical play of the same name, is one of the jewels of the year. The lady in question is something of a mystery, a rude, cantankerous and self-serving homeless woman who ends up living in a Bedford van on Bennett’s driveway in Camden. He blames himself, of course, for being too timid to stand up to the woman, who takes advantage of him with Herculean design.

 

Nicholas Hytner, who directed the original play, as well as the Alan Bennett-scripted The Madness of King George and The History Boys, is blessed with the presence of Maggie Smith in the title role. The wonder of her creation, a ‘Miss Shepherd,’ is that she defies any attempts at sympathy and only happens to be amusing due to her directness. The English, you see, are seldom so direct. Her mantra is “I’m a busy woman,” but when she’s not fuming at the world she can be terribly funny. “Do you want a coffee?” Alan Bennett asks her. “No. I don’t want you going to all that trouble,” she replies. “I’ll have half a cup.” But this woman imparting an “odoriferous concerto” had a past, a route to her currently lamentable circumstances, and it’s the lifting of the layers of her history that makes The Lady in the Van such compulsive viewing. It is perhaps befitting when she remarks, “I’ve always had great faith in onions.”

 

A welter of contradictions, Miss Shepherd provides Dame Maggie with the crowning glory of a remarkable career and, characteristically, she pulls it off with fearless skill and uncanny comic timing. Above all, though, she frees the bag lady from the bonds of caricature and makes her a flesh-and-blood conundrum. As Alan Bennett himself, both the writer and the uncomfortable onlooker – for the most part Bennett lives with himself – Alex Jennings captures the narrator’s self-effacing asperity and Yorkshire vowels with lancet-like precision. He, too, is pitch perfect, providing a perfect platform for the cinema’s oddest couple of the year.

 

If only, then, Hytner had resisted aiming for the lowest common denominator with a brace of bum notes: namely Jim Broadbent’s wide boy antagonist (who introduces an unwelcome sitcom mentality) and George Fenton’s gushing score. At what could have been the film’s most emotive moment – which I shan’t reveal here – Fenton drowns in a syrupy crescendo. It’s like a dollop of treacle plopped into a bone china cup of Earl Grey. In its final chapter, the film almost loses its heart.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Clare Hammond, Deborah Findlay, Claire Foy, Gwen Taylor, Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Sacha Dhawan, Andrew Knott, Clive Merrison, Russell Tovey.

 

Dir Nicholas Hytner, Pro Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones and Kevin Loader, Screenplay Alan Bennett, Ph Andrew Dunn, Pro Des John Beard, Ed Tariq Anwar, Music George Fenton, Costumes Natalie Ward.

 

BBC Films-Sony Pictures.

103 mins. UK. 2015. Rel: 13 November 2015. Cert. 12A.