As we are seeing with the last minute “awards rush” of film releases, ‘tis the season for legends and icons with movie screens stuffed with the talents of everyone from Jane Fonda to Sir Michael Caine and, of course, the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith who drives into theatres as “The Lady in the Van”. Warm, witty and wonderful, “The Lady in the Van” (and the Dame who plays her) is a pure delight!
Adapted from the acclaimed stage play written by Alan Bennett based on his “mostly true story” of “The Lady in the Van”, directed by Sir Nicholas Hytner from Bennett’s script, and starring Smith and Alex Jennings, who reprise their stage roles on screen, this is the story of the unforgettable Miss Shepherd, who did indeed live in a van in Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years.
The time is 1970 and we meet Miss Shepherd. A bit wonky and homeless (although she says she’s not as her home is her van), she has been parking her van on the streets of the a beautiful garden district in suburban London. An eyesore to be sure, when it comes time for the vehicle to be towed, writer Alan Bennett takes pity on Miss Shepherd and allows to park her van in his unused driveway “for a few months.” The writer in him, however, finds both her and her situation fascinating. And then with Alex Jennings in a dual role as himself, “The Lady in the Van” takes flight with the dazzling antics of Miss Shepherd as Alan Bennett the writer sits at his window observing her, the van and the goings on of life, and Alan Bennett the participant interacts with Miss Shepherd and everything outside the walls of Bennett’s den. The result is stimulating and entertaining beyond belief as we go back in time with Miss Shepherd’s remembrances, as well as forward, watching one of the most engaging human interest stories ever.
Maggie Smith sparkles like the brightest diamond, glistening with wit and whimsy. Smith dives in head first, relishing the bizarre quirkiness of Miss Shepherd; most notably with Shepherd’s devotion to and claims of divine guidance from the Virgin Mary, her dumpster wardrobe and her utter lack of personal hygiene. But then Smith zings us with a palpable fear at hearing music or a man that repeatedly knocks on her van window at night demanding money. And the surprising innocence we see on her face in some late in life tender moments will warm the coldest heart.
As for Alex Jennings in the dual role of Alan Bennett, his performance is just beyond fabulous. The dueling personas within his head brought to life are entertaining and engaging. Although having originated the role previously on stage, Jennings brings a freshness to the big screen that serves not only the story, but the dueling Alans well.
Joyous is part of what Hytner describes as his repertoire company, Smith’s former “Harry Potter” co-star Frances de la Tour in a “meatier” role than what we normally see of her. de la Tour just fuels the romp that’s unfolding with genuine laughter and glee. Cameos from other Hytner players like Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Roger Allam abound, completing this beautiful and unique tapestry.
As comfortable and at home as easily behind the camera as he is directing a stage play, Hytner’s direction is inspired, creative to the core. Approaching the storytelling with a marriage of “ruthlessly realistic photography with a whiff of the lightness and the whimsicalness of Ealing Comedy” and keeping the camera “human” with the point of view being primarily that of the writer Bennett sitting at his desk in the den and watching the goings on of his street from that vantage point, the result is indeed warm, witty and relatable. Production designer John Beard has outdone himself with creating “The Van” and its immediate environs, while costumer Natalie Ward truly captures every element of attiring the homeless – with layering and fabrics, while capturing the personal, yet too often overlooked, pride of the individual. Cinematography is light and bright, never bogs down into darkness or claustrophobic lensing; on the contrary, Andrew Dunn actually makes the world of “The Lady” and of “The Van” feel spacious. Shot at Bennett’s home where “The Lady” and her van resided, Dunn’s lens adds texture to the surrounding palette of “The Van” by capturing the minutiae of the community – bricks, florals, gates, cobblestones, windows, etc. while never making any of those layers too obvious – serving as visual nuance, like little metallic threads in embroidery.
Run, don’t walk, to the nearest screen for “The Lady in the Van”!
Directed by Sir Nicholas Hytner
Written by Alan Bennett
Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Roger Allam