When it comes to intelligent, feel-good drama director Nicholas Hytner and playwright Alan Bennett are the dream team: they have collaborated for stage and screen in blockbusters including The History Boys and The Madness of King George. This latest project, a BBC film adaptation of Bennett's autobiographical play The Lady in the Van, does not disappoint.
Set in the 1970s and based on the playwright’s own experiences, the film focuses on Alan Bennett, played with plenty of heart by Alex Jennings, and his extraordinary, prolonged encounter with the titular Lady in the Van. Maggie Smith, who originally played the part on stage in 1999, is a delight as the bedraggled but dignified Miss Shepherd, who permanently resides in a battered van on a residential Camden Street. From raw onions to old dishcloth, each grisly layer of her stench is made vivid in Bennett's writing. Not that the lady cares: she's doggedly proud of her cleanliness and stoic about her squalid living conditions. As Smith combines this eccentricity with a sense of repressed guilt, regret and vulnerability, the result is deeply moving.
But, for all the pathos of her situation, not once is the lady simplified with sentimentality. Instead, her quirks and cantankerousness are celebrated and the unsavoury realities of age and infirminity, excrement and all, are thrust upon Alan Bennett, who is too timid to protest. Both parts of himself — the one that does the living and the one that does the writing — live in different, conflicting degrees of fascination and fear of this vagrant.
The North London intelligentsia community of Gloucester Crescent, brought to life with a stonking cast of stage and screen actors including Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam and Dominic Cooper, is a wryly accurate embodiment of liberal ideals combined with a Not In My Backyard protectionism. Well-meaning concern mingles with horror to hilarious effect.
Soon, instead of moving around the street, parking up at different houses and concerning various residents, Miss Shepherd plonks her van in Bennett's drive way — and stays until her death 15 years later.
As ever with Bennett at his best, the extraordinary illuminates the utterly ordinary: the peculiar inadvertent responsibility for this lady reflects the relatable, heart-wrenching demise of his mother. Thought-provoking but never patronising, this examination of caring and social or familial obligation still chimes now, decades after Miss Shepherd's death.
Hard-hitting, boundary-breaking drama this is not. But for warm, up-lifting entertainment with plenty of heart and intelligence, you can't do much better than The Lady in the Van.
|What||The Lady in the Van film review, London Film Festival|
|Where||Odeon Leicester Square, 24-26 Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7LQ | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
13 Nov 15 – 31 Dec 15, UK Release date
|Website||Click here to book tickets for the London Film Festival|