The Lady in the Van
dir Nicholas Hytner
scr Alan Bennett
prd Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones, Kevin Loader
with Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Taylor, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore, Samuel Anderson
release UK 13.Nov.15
15/UK TriStar 1h44
The Lady in the Van
on the road: Smith and Jennings

broadbent allam de la tour
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Lady in the Van Alan Bennett adapts his own memoir for the big screen, cleverly playing with the idea that he is writing his own story. Yes, a homeless woman really did live in a van in his driveway for 15 years. And since the great Maggie Smith plays her on-screen, the film is not only entertaining, but its message has a spiky bite.

Mary Shepherd (Smith) arrives in 1970 Camden with a flourish, parking her van up and down the street. Everyone knows her and worries they'll be the next ones she'll choose to live near. But it's playwright Alan (Jennings) who shows her kindness, and reluctantly lets her put her van in his driveway for a few months. Over the following years, he learns little snippets about Mary, but refuses to pry. And a series of mini-adventures offer further revelations as he learns about her past as a musician, ambulance driver, nun and fugitive from the law.

With a cheeky tone, the story spins around the idea that there are two Alan Bennetts: one who writes and one who lives. This allows Bennett to comment on his experiences with Mary in ways that are both witty and surprisingly moving, especially as he sees parallels with his mother (Taylor), who has to move into a nursing home. Jennings is engaging in the role, playing off himself and everyone else as well. Although his role's complexity kind of makes Mary simplistic by comparison. Smith is effortlessly magnetic as always.

The film benefits hugely from being filmed in the location where these events took place. The script's random details and missing information make it feel utterly real, adding a hint of mystery. Alan's reticent Englishness prevents him from probing Mary for details of her past, but he quietly investigates without her knowing. And as things become clearer, the details add telling resonance, exploring some complex issues about how a life can take an unexpected turn and keep on going.

This is a gently entertaining movie that's packed with little gems, from the parade of cameo performances (all of whom have a connection to Bennett's career) to the delicate observations laced through the script. Bennett and Hytner have a long history working together, and their collaboration here feels relaxed and easy. There's nothing flashy, but a steadily engaging vibe and subtly provocative narrative challenge viewers to take more of an interest in the people around them.

cert 12 themes, language 26.Aug.15

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© 2015 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall