Alan Bennett is a British Institution and a National Treasure. So is Maggie Smith. The Lady In The Van reunites Bennett the writer and Smith the actor in a glorious film adaptation of Bennett’s memoir and stage play about Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on the drive of his house for fifteen years.
It’s a film with some wonderful acting talent – Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour – but it’s the two leads who shine. Alex Jennings plays two versions of Alan Bennett – the writer who sits at the typewriter and observes and writes, and the person who lives the life. The two Alans bicker and debate motivation – is Bennett’s tolerance of Miss Shepherd making up for his helplessness as his mother deteriorates many miles away? Or is Miss Shepherd a source of material to write about? Jennings’s impersonation of Bennett is excellent – we’re so familiar with Alan Bennett’s appearance and voice, it must be a little daunting to have to play him on film, but it’s a great performance.
And Maggie Smith will almost certainly get award nominations as Miss Shepherd. It’s a really juicy role for her, and she plays the eccentricity, irascibility and tragedy of the character so well.
This is, as much as anything, a film about writing. A couple of times “Life Alan” launches into a tirade about something, only to cut to “Writing Alan” saying “of course, you didn’t really say that, did you?” – the playwright having the chance to always say what he wants to say in retrospect.
And the film occasionally reminds us that we are in the hands of a truly Unreliable Narrator – a playwright, whose stock in trade is creating incidents and exaggerating others for comic or tragic effect. Miss Shepherd’s past is gradually revealed, but we can never be sure how much of anything is true – every event, every sentence, every thought is presented through the typewriter of the playwright. How much of it can we actually trust or believe? Is that how it happened, or has later evidence informed earlier events? And does it matter anyway: don’t we expect a playwright to exaggerate, or to use a real-life incident as the jumping-off point for a wider “truth”?
The Lady In The Van is a really lovely film, full of laughs in that typical Alan Bennett style:
Alan (asking for help for Miss Shepherd from a nun in the local convent): You could do some shopping for her.
Sister: We don’t have “Shopping Nuns”.
Alan: But I saw one last week, in Marks & Spencer. She was buying meringues.
Sister: Perhaps the Bishop was visiting.
Alan: The Bishop likes meringues, does he?
(apologies if I’ve slightly misremembered the quote)
I’d be interested to see how The Lady In The Van travels – it feels so very British, so much in the Alan Bennett style that we’ve come to know particularly through Talking Heads (where both Bennett and Smith performed brilliant monologues).