The Watchers

The Watchers

Friday, 20 November 2015

Review: The Lady In The Van (UK Cert 12A)

Truth can often be stranger than fiction. In the 1970s, writer Alan Bennett lived in Camden where he encountered a homeless woman who called herself Miss Shepherd who lived in a clapped-out old van, travelling around the suburb. Bennett offered Miss Shepherd the temporary use of his driveway; she ended up staying there for fifteen years. Bennett wrote a memoir which was later adapted into a play and now a film.

The Lady In The Van is a witty, moving and occasionally poignant comedy-drama ably performed by the cream of British acting talent, led from the front by a truly superb performance by Maggie Smith.

Miss Shepherd is a cantankerous old biddy, haughty, belligerent - and an absolute gift for any actress. Smith originated the role on stage (and reprised that role for a 2009 radio adaptation) so she would be the natural choice to portray her on film. Of course, there's much more to her than just be a cranky old bat and Smith mines the pathos of the character without ever coming across as pathetic. There are moments when you truly feel for her as the story of her life comes out, and she also gets some of the film's most funny lines- her waspish tongue cutting across the genteel hypocrisy of her Camden neighbours (who all agree something must be done to help Miss Shepherd but heavens forfend that they're the ones to actually do it). This ranks as one of Smith's finest performances which, in a career as good and as wide as hers, is saying something. 

Matching Smith's superlative performance is Alex Jennings whose performance as Alan Bennett transcends mere impersonation (although he has nailed Bennett's soft Northern tones). There's an unusual and interesting conceit to the film in which Jennings plays two versions of Bennett- the one who lives and the one who writes- and has them talking to each other and bickering like an old married couple. It's initially disconcerting but I think it works. He acts as the grounded foil to the eccentric Miss Shepherd and their strained odd-couple relationship develops over the course of the film.

The rest of the supporting cast is a veritable Who's Who of British stage and screen acting- Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Deborah Findlay and Gwen Taylor all make appearances and there are small roles for the vast majority of the film cast of The History Boys (which was also directed by Nicholas Hytner). 

Bennett's script (adapted from his memoir) does have the ring of the stage about it but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The film starts with the caption that this is 'mostly true' and there are things that have been embellished or concocted for dramatic purpose- at a couple of points, the writer Bennett does point out that he didn't actually say that (usually at moments of frustration). There's also not a marked difference showing the passage of time - it's just mentioned- almost always in a throwaway manner- in the script

This is the kind of project that BBC Films do so well. The film is well made, the script strong, the cast fantastic. A pure joy.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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