Is there a better combination than Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith? If there is, Haribo hasn’t invented it yet. In this quintessentially English big screen adaptation of Bennett’s book, The Lady in the Van is a touching story about two extraordinary people whose lives become inexplicably intertwined.
Having thoroughly enjoyed this ruthless celebration of the glorious sweater-vest, it’s still difficult to believe that The Lady in the Van is based on a true story. Maggie Smith (A Room with a View, Gosford Park) plays eccentric ex-nun Mary Shepherd who resides, as the title suggests, in a battered old van. One day, Bennett, played scarily well by Alex Jennings (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Babel) has his life irrevocably altered by Mary’s unceremonious arrival. For those who don’t know what happens, Bennett travels alongside us as we piece together her story as her fifteen year tenancy at his Camden abode unfurls.
The film is founded on duelling identities, on the past forbidding smooth personal progression, be it social or professional. Bennett and the audience make incremental discoveries about Mary that reveal she is not the person she claims, her fascinating history suggesting a tragically unfulfilled life. There are two Alan Bennetts (the real one turns up at the end and things get very meta) ceaselessly debating about what to do with Mary. He decides to let her stay in his drive not because he is caring (he detests that word) but altruistically lazy.
Bennett the observer clashes with Bennett the frustrated artisan, but it’s the writer’s humanely observational quality that Jennings expertly represents. He watches Mary confusedly, but never sneers. On paper, two Bennetts on screen simultaneously sounds problematic, but his inner conflicts are convincingly represented. Jennings makes an excellent stab at Bennett’s voice, which radiates lugubrious warmth as it narrates proceedings. A West Yorkshire dressing somehow heightens the sense of Englishness apparent in Bennett’s tendency to favour complaining over solving the problems he faces.
What’s clear is that high-standing figures of authority, religious and secular, are ineffectual at best and corrupt at worst. Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz, Brooklyn) plays retired detective Underwood who keeps Mary’s terrible secret through blackmail, wilfully worsening her mental state. The nuns at the convent in which Mary tries to establish herself cruelly suppress her love of playing the piano. Bennett’s intellectually lofty yet morally impoverished neighbours do nothing to help Mary either. Instead, Rufus, played by Roger Allam (The Book Thief, The Thick of It) chides Bennett about his ragged companion in exactly the sort of way you’d expect a middle-class Camdenite to behave. Bennett, as timid as he is acerbic, is the understated hero of the film with whom we sympathise. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that Mary stopped him from living fully, despite providing the basis for a popular expose of suburban oddness.
The Lady in the Van boasts wit on tap, Maggie Smith in a reliant robin and Bennett swearing numerous times. Just don’t ever accuse Bennett of being caring.
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