Surprisingly, “The Lady in the Van” begins with a literal bang —it’s a shock for those led by marketing materials to believe they were simply in for a quiet British charmer. The film also doesn’t fall neatly into the comedy category, in which its star Maggie Smith was deservedly nominated for a Golden Globe. While there are plenty of moments of humor, ”The Lady in the Van” mixes some sadness into its story about writer Alan Bennett’s experiences with his unconventional neighbor over more than a decade.
The bang at the film’s beginning isn’t immediately explained; a shaken Mary Shepherd (Smith) notices blood on her van’s cracked windshield while driving on an English country road. The next scenes find Shepherd with her van parked on a street in London’s Camden Town neighborhood in the 1970s: her presence annoys and angers most of the residents. She’s cranky, odd, and as Bennett’s introduction explains, emits a particularly strong odor caused by living in her van.
The introduction shares more about both Shepherd and Bennett, but it sheds the most light on the latter. Played by Alex Jennings (“The Queen”), Bennett is a celebrated playwright who most often writes about his neighbor’s lack of hygiene. The intro also indicates that the film will focus on not one Alan Bennett, but two: the Alan Bennett who lives his life and the one who merely sits and writes about it. Both are played by Jennings through some small special effects work, with only an added tie or sweater (and a pen) to differentiate between the two for the audience. It’s an interesting, unexpected device in a film that could have easily hewn closer to the more standard structure of quirky British dramedies. Throughout “The Lady in the Van,” Jennings’ two Bennetts interact with each other, while the living version of the writer experiences life with Shepherd, a variety of families and couples in London and his aging, ailing mother (Gwen Taylor, “Coronation Street”).
As Bennett’s neighbors worry about lowered property values thanks to Shepherd’s presence, he reluctantly allows her van to park in his driveway, stating that it’s easier than trying to have her removed. The neighbors and social workers see her as his responsibility, which he vehemently denies, though he appears closer to her than anyone else. Over the years, the two get to know one another, and he slowly learns more about her life before she arrived in his neighborhood, with each reveal changing his perception of the woman squatting in his driveway. Their relationship never evolves into a deep friendship, but there’s an evident compassion and an interesting symbiosis.
Bennett wrote “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys,” and here he adapts his own memoir and play for the screen with abundant portions of his trademark clever dialogue. Both of those films were directed by Nicholas Hytner, who returns to film directing with “The Lady in the Van” after a hiatus spent as the head of the British National Theatre. Actors from the collaborator’s previous films appear in brief cameos, including James Corden and Dominic Cooper. Despite Hytner’s time in the theater and the tendency of stage adaptations to feel hemmed in by a certain limitation of scope, this film feels nicely expansive. It doesn’t stay confined to Bennett’s home and street, venturing further afield in the unlikely pair’s adventures, though it also doesn’t feel like it’s stretching too far simply because it can. Beyond his collaborations with Bennett, Hytner hasn’t been a particularly successful film director, with fare like “Center Stage” and “The Object of My Affection” contrasting with his impressive theater credits. That said, his work with Bennett’s writing has been a fine marriage of director and material —his restraint is rarely dull.
Smith played Shepherd in the stage production, and her reprise is a wonderful fit of actor and character here. Shepherd is a far cry from the prim and proper ladies that Smith is best known to portray, such as Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey.” Her Shepherd is bristly and strange, with her odd habits and behavior extending beyond mere eccentricity. She’s less likable on the surface than what we’ve come to expect from the lovable oddballs that often populate British comedies, complete with genuine problems beyond just her hygiene. It’s a complex role; while Shepherd is often funny, Smith doesn’t attempt to endear her character to the audience and bares her prickliness bravely.
Jennings walks a similar line as Bennett, eschewing charm and warmth for a strongly crafted character with a specific voice. Bennett and Shepherd aren’t always the most relatable characters, but they’re fully realized and always watchable. This isn’t an overly sentimental story; those expecting the emotional swells of other British fare like “Pride” and “Kinky Boots” should adjust their expectations. “The Lady in the Van” is a more buttoned-up narrative, but it’s no less engaging thanks to Smith, Jennings, and Bennett’s script. [B+]