A lady in waiting

Countryman

FILM

The Lady In The Van

Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings

REVIEW RAY CHAN

Alan Bennett’s acclaimed The Lady in the Van, already released for stage, radio and in book form, has now made the transition to cinema, ensuring a wider audience for the author’s beloved play.

In it, veteran actress Maggie Smith reprises her radio role as Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before letting her park her dilapidated van in the driveway of his Camden home. Initially promising to stay for three months, she ended up entrenched there for the next 15 years

As the story develops, Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, learns that Miss Shepherd is really a former gifted musician with a convoluted history. After being ill-treated at the abbey where she hoped to become a nun, she was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.

In reprising his experiences with Miss Shepherd, we see two Bennetts, both played by Jennings, in the household … a storytelling device that allows us to easily view the writer’s conflicting selves as they try to adapt to the unexpected intrusion into their lives. In a clever breaking down of the fourth wall, the two halves are in constant, contradictory dialogue about whether it would be proper to use Bennett’s experiences with Shepherd as material for a play. It’s the kind of narrative stunt that could easily go astray, but is pulled off with surety.

Smith’s character is cantankerous, odious and ungrateful, with her utter obliviousness to her lack of personal hygiene, her initially peculiar hatred of music, and her ragtag wardrobe that's been assembled from various dumpsters.

Yet is a testament to Smith’s pedigree and fame in other roles that the audience warms up to her and manages to look beyond the faults that could easily have made her totally unlikeable had the character been played by someone else.

Many of the laughs in this film are a result of the reaction by the introverted, kind-hearted Bennett as he tries to help the addled visitor and her eccentricities.

But there is also a tinge of sadness as he grapples with having to move his own ageing, mother into a nursing home, while on the other hand offering his driveway as sanctuary for someone of similar age and mental deterioration to whom he is not related.

It must have plagued Bennett that he was perhaps subconsciously helping her out of guilt over how he treated his ailing mother. Or was he just keeping her as source material?

The movie is all the more poignant for being shot in the same house and street where the incident occurred in real life .. and the real Bennett himself makes a cameo at the film’s end. Indeed, the movie engages a stellar cast of supporting players, including a number of revered British stalwarts such as Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper, as well as James Corden in a cameo.

In an era of American sledgehammer comedies with lead protagonists so dim as to defy belief, it is refreshing to watch a gentle comedy such as this, the sort which the British seem to excel in producing.

There are some false notes along the way, and a rather fanciful ending, but it remains a showpiece for the talents of the remarkable Dame Maggie, and that, in itself, is reason enough to pop along and enjoy this memorable ride through Bennet’s backyard.

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