Of the most prominent British writers, one of the ones I’m not as familiar with as I probably should be is Alan Bennett. I’ve not seen any of his plays but, based on their descriptions, I’m sure I would like them. One of his plays was The Lady in the Van, adapted from his memoir about a woman who lived in a van in his driveway for 15 years. That play has now been turned into a film, reuniting Alan Bennett with Nicholas Hynter, the director of The History Boys (both stage and screen), someone who is really comfortable with the works of Bennett so would probably do a good job adapting it to screen, and I say he does. The Lady in the Van is a very entertaining film with a brilliantly handled darker edge.
The plot focuses on playwright Alan Bennett who, in an act of kindness, allows Miss Shepherd, a homeless woman living in a van on the street he lives on, to stay in his drive for a few weeks. This ends up turning into her staying there for 15 years. During this time, Bennett finds out more about Shepherd, learning that she had a more interesting past than he could have predicted. What I really like about the film is the way it explores our attitudes towards the homeless. Throughout the film, many of the residents on the street express sympathy for Shepherd, wanting to do good for her, but not wanting to offer her the help she really needs. They want to be seen as doing good but don’t want Shepherd to stay on the street, fearing that her presence there will drive down the house prices. This says a lot about how we treat the homeless in society, wanting to treat them well but being too selfish to treat them better. This even extends to Bennett as one of the reasons why he helps Shepherd is to satiate his curiosity and potentially write about her, along with his feelings about Shepherd also representing his feelings towards his mum in relation to him providing little care for her. The film also does a great job looking at the harm religion and guilt can do to people. With religion, we find out that Shepherd was an accomplished piano player, even training in France, but when she trained to be a nun she was taught that playing the piano was sinful and was conditioned to hate it, with this extending to her having negative reactions to any form of music, showing the pain that the church has imposed on her. The guilt meanwhile comes through the event that led to Shepherd becoming the Lady in the Van, it haunting her, with the blackmail she receives over it showing more of the depth of Shepherd. We even see that Shepherd has been to confession multiple times (which also shows the good personal religion can do over organised religion) and is still racked with guilt over what happened. Now I know I’m making it sound like a really serious film but it is actually really funny. Bennett’s script is packed with hilarious moments and lines, mainly from the reactions to Shepherd, along with the nature of Shepherd, and I was laughing my head off throughout the film. This also does a good job at making the more serious moments work through showing the changes in the characters.
These character moments are brilliantly presented in the acting. Maggie Smith has been playing Shepherd since the play first ran in 1999 and it’s clear she’s incredibly comfortable in the role. Smith plays both the humourous and darker side of Shepherd brilliantly, alternating between the two in a very natural way. The gross-out humour in relation to how she lives may not have worked in the hands of a lesser actor but Smith is able to nail it. She also shows that Shepherd was a pretty unlikable person, really cantankerous and bitter, which lets you know why some people on the street would be less inclined to help her. Alex Jennings meanwhile is excellent as Bennett. On a physical and vocal level, Jennings is note perfect as Bennett, especially seen when he recreates one of Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues. Jennings also does a good job portraying the two sides of Bennett in the film, the writer and the person, the conversations between these two halves being really interesting and it’s through this that elements such as Bennett’s more timid nature, his feelings towards his mum and his kindness mixed with anger towards Shepherd come through. This side also brings in some really funny moments regarding it not being the true story of what happened, openly acknowledging the parts that have been embezzled for the sake of the plot. There are also good performances from Roger Allam as one of Bennett’s neighbours who doesn’t want Shepherd on the street, Jim Broadbent in a really sinister performance as a former police officer who is blackmailing Shepherd and Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s mum. Virtually the entire original cast of The History Boys, including Dominic Cooper, Frances De La Tour, Samuel Anderson, Russell Tovey and Sacha Dhawan make appearances, although the trailers really overhyped the role of James Corden, who’s only in the film for about 2 minutes, to capitalise on the success he’s had in America hosting The Late, Late Show.
The technical side of the film is strong, mainly with the use of locations. Many of the filming locations used in the film are the real places Shepherd stayed, notably it was filmed at Alan Bennett’s house, in the drive Shepherd lived in for 15 years, with the film ending with the cast and crew putting a blue plaque on the house showing it was where she lived. The period details of the 70s and 80s are also brilliantly shown, from the subtle changes in the windows and the fashion to the changes of Shepherd’s vans, Hynter really nails the period details. The music is excellent as well, really adding to the characters, in particular the piano music for Shepherd.
Overall, The Lady in the Van, is equal parts touching, dark and hilarious. The acting from Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings are excellent, the themes related to religion and attitudes towards the homeless are presented brilliantly and the fact the film was shot in most of the real locations adds it a sense of realism that other films lack. This is one of the highlights of the British film industry this year and one I highly recommend.
My Rating: 5/5