You will probably laugh a lot and shed a few tears, but it is certain that you will long remember Alan Bennett’s “The Lady in the Van,” with Dame (of the Realm and of the Theater Olympus) Maggie Smith.
The story – improbably mostly true – is not promising, but Smith, Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner have transformed it into something wondrously memorable. In brief: An elderly, mysterious, and shockingly asocial woman, whose name may or may not be Mary Shepherd, parks her messy van in Bennett’s London driveway… and remains a squatter there for 15 years.
Mostly true? The main story, with its amazing twists and turns, is, and Bennett makes it clear – in the book, later as part of a series of television monologs (known collectively as “Talking Heads”), and then the play on the West End, and certainly in the film – what is not factually true, although carrying great significance. One obvious example: Alex Jennings, playing Bennett superbly, appears as two characters, one the writer, the other “living the story.” Not to worry: it makes perfect sense in the film.
“Lady in the Van” will first open in the San Francisco Bay Area on Jan. 22 (Landmark Clay and Century 9), and in six other theaters a week later.
Smith is now 81 years old (coincidentally so is Bennett, but their semi-fictional selves had a significant age difference), making the role a walk in the park, but that’s just another expectation facts contradict. She puts heart and soul into the performance, her age becomes immaterial, just as it was 17 years ago when she first portrayed Mary Shepherd in the play version on the London stage.
Hytner, famed director of the National Theatre from 2003 until last year, is among the most prominent figures in the theater. To add to the reality of “The Lady in the Van,” Hytner has recalled that in the 1980s, he often walked through Gloucester Crescent – the site of the story and the venue for the film that was shot on location – and notice the incongruous presence of the woman and the van in front of No. 23, which he knew to be Bennett’s residence. Hytner wondered about what the van is doing there, but didn’t find out about the identity of woman until reading Bennett’s account.
Gloucester Crescent was home not only to Bennett, but many stars of London’s stage and literary worlds, including director and TV presenter Jonathan Miller, writer and journalist Claire Tomalin, playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, and novelist Alice Thomas Ellis.
The film is pretty much a duet (or, with Bennett’s double respresentation, a trio) between the writer and character portrayed by Smith, but minor roles are cast notably, including Jim Broadbent, Frances De La Tour, and Roger Allam.