Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for a fleeting unsettling image
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.19.16
Some plays make awkward films, the very nature of their enclosed stage universe rendered claustrophobic on the big screen.
That absolutely isn’t the case with The Lady in the Van, which opens up quite cleverly under the guidance of director Nicholas Hytner and scripter Alan Bennett. The latter has adapted this charming little drama from his own play, which debuted in 1999 in London’s West End, and which in turn was based on actual events recorded in his exhaustive memoirs.
Maggie Smith starred in the stage production, and also played the same role in a BBC Radio adaptation. No surprise, then, that she delivers a crisp, saucy and richly memorable performance in this cinematic version.
She plays Mary Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who lives in a dilapidated van that she has trundled about a bucolic North London street called Gloucester Crescent, a neighborhood which — in this late 1960s setting — hosts various British stage and literary luminaries. As introduced in Hytner’s film, we get the vague sense that “Miss Shepherd” has made a habit of parking in front of a given house until her sloppy ways prove too distressing, at which point she fires up the van and moves elsewhere along the lane.
Her eccentric behavior comes to the attention of playwright, screenwriter, actor and author Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) when he moves into the neighborhood, taking the house at No. 23. She’s rather hard to miss — given the combination of street rubbish and feisty imprecations that trail in her wake — and Bennett’s new neighbors are only too happy to supply details and rumors.
They’ve all kinda/sorta tolerated Miss Shepherd, out of a sense of liberal guilt that prompts them into occasional deliveries of food, reading material and any other small items they assume she might find useful. Parents cluck when their children, passing too close to Miss Shepherd, wrinkle their noses and complain that “she smells bad.”
Here, too, Bennett’s descriptive prose paints marvelous word pictures, when (for example) his running commentary describes her aromatic miasma as an “odoriferous concerto ... with urine only a minor component.”
Bennett, with a writer’s born curiosity, finds her endlessly fascinating ... even as her slovenly behavior strains his rather prissy sensibilities. In this film’s most ingenious touch, Bennett’s internal conversations take corporeal form, with Jennings playing both “Bennett the author,” forever clacking away on his typewriter; and the “Bennett who interacts,” experiencing the events that fuel his other self’s scripts.
The split screen visual effects are handled superbly by Mervyn New; we don’t doubt for a moment that Bennett’s imaginary twin is right there in the room with him. This gimmick also allows some of the colorfully poetic prose from the actual Bennett’s memoirs to be integrated into this script, as the movie’s two Bennetts chat and gently bicker with each other.
The neighborhood dynamic shifts when a police tow-away notice threatens Miss Shepherd’s street existence: a problem she solves by pulling into the driveway at No. 23. Bennett isn’t happy, but at the same time his intrinsic compassion won’t allow him to object.
And, so, Miss Shepherd and her van become permanent fixtures in Bennett’s driveway ... where they are fated to remain for 15 years.
The subsequent dramedy is fueled by this core relationship, Miss Shepherd’s cheeky irritability occasionally leavened by unexpected bursts of frightened vulnerability, and everything at odds with Bennett’s fussy and fastidious nature.
I was reminded immediately of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, with its similarly descriptive and emotionally rich relationship between his childhood self and an elderly distant cousin who, each year, eagerly anticipates “fruitcake weather.” Actually, it’s impossible not to think of Capote, given the genteel and finicky bearing with which Jennings plays Bennett.
To say that Smith steals the show would be the worst of understatements; she positively owns this film. She’s simultaneously funny and horrific, regal and forlorn: her wary features often twisted into a disapproving scowl. She gets impressive mileage from a deadpan stare, and just as easily skewers “trespassers” — those who venture too close — with haughty commands that aren’t any less imperial than those uttered by Queen Elizabeth herself.
Smith has been garbed by costume designer Natalie Ward in a rag-picker’s assortment of dowdy dresses, overcoats and hilariously inappropriate footwear, invariably topped by a grimy cap and two or three scarves, the latter on which she undoubtedly blows her nose. Her bathroom habits beggar description, and are milked by Hytner for frequently pained and uneasy laughter.
It’s such a balancing act: On the one hand, Miss Shepherd is a screamingly obvious object of pity, but at the same time she exhibits a spunky joie de vivre that neither Bennett nor we can ignore.
The actual Bennett includes several gentle messages in this whimsical little drama, not the least of which is the open-ended question of how best to care for the homeless members of our society, along with better addressing the events that land them in such a predicament. Then, too, Miss Shepherd becomes a surrogate of sorts, when Bennett reluctantly moves his mother (Gwen Taylor), who is sliding into dementia, into a nursing home.
Stiff upper lip notwithstanding, we see in Jennings’ stricken features that this decision costs him mightily; it’s therefore understandable that he should, in turn, take an even greater interest in Miss Shepherd.
On top of which, there is a mystery at hand: something about Miss Shepherd’s distant past — something to do with music — that lends a greater air of tragedy to this scenario. Then, too, there’s a more recent trauma, left unspecified until the final act, which somehow involves a gruff stranger (Jim Broadbent) who occasionally frightens Miss Shepherd into giving him what little money has come into her possession.
The supporting cast is rich with familiar faces, starting with some of the Gloucester Crescent neighbors: the regal Frances de la Tour as the widow of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; and Roger Allam, immediately recognized from his ongoing role as DI Fred Thursday, on the ITV series Endeavour, as an oily homeowner whose occasional mutterings of charity clearly don’t reflect his true feelings.
Bennett also secured fleeting cameos for many of the actors who appeared in the 2006 film version of his award-winning and wildly popular play, The History Boys: James Corden, now famous as a late-night TV host, pops up as a produce market seller; Jamie Parker is the estate agent who sells this screen Bennett his house.
The entire package is assembled with quiet panache by Hytner, a stage and film director best known — on these shores — for helming The Madness of King George, the 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and, yes, The History Boys.
Aside from Bennett’s voluminous stage, television, film and literary productions, he also is one of the two surviving members — along with Jonathan Miller — of the Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe that included Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and was so enormously popular in the early 1960s.
Hytner and Bennett close this film on a poignant conceit: the mounting of a blue plaque — one of those ubiquitous history markers that can be found throughout London — on the exterior wall of No. 23 Gloucester Crescent, to signify Miss Shepherd’s long-ago presence. It’s a gesture that Bennett envisioned in his memoirs, but which takes place only within the artifice of this movie (with the approving presence of the actual Bennett, who bicycles up for the ceremony).
Frankly, it oughtta be authentic: to honor both Mary Shepherd and Maggie Smith.