The Lady in the Van is one of writer Alan Bennett's most personal works, and one he has returned to in multiple formats over the years. It began as a novel published in 1983, and told the mostly-true story of Bennett's complicated relationship with a cantankerous homeless woman named Mary Shepherd. In 1999, Bennett turned his book into an award-winning stage production starring Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), turned in a radio dramatization of the tale in 2009 (also starring Smith) and now, at long last, he has given us a film adaptation of the story (yes, Smith is still playing the title role).
On the surface, it may look as if Bennett is merely cashing in on one of his big successes (taking the same multi-format approach that he took with critically acclaimed works like The Madness of King George III and The History Boys), but the film itself suggests something different: that after all these years, Bennett still hasn't quite figured out precisely how he wants to go about telling this story. So, he works his inner conflict into the film itself, Adaptation-style, and spends just as much time wrestling with his own creative impulses as he does examining Ms. Shepard's life.
The tale begins as Mary decides to park her dilapidated van – which doubles as her home – on the street in the Camden Town neighborhood where Alan (Alex Jennings, The Queen) and a number of other upper-class folks live. A number of residents timidly approach her in an attempt to figure out why she's there and whether they can do anything to send her on her way, but Mary is having none of it. She's planning to stay right where she is, and has very little interest in what anyone else has to say about the matter.
To say that Mary is unapproachable would be an understatement. She's a rude, stubborn, foul-smelling woman who responds to every inquiry with hostility and leaves piles of feces all around the van for people to step in. Even so, her presence continually triggers the neighborhood's liberal guilt, so she receives a steady supply of clothes, baked goods and other niceties (she accepts all of these, but always takes the opportunity to insult the person giving the gifts to her). However, when local hoodlums begin harassing Mary, Alan decides to intervene and let the old woman move the van into his driveway. Soon, the neighborhood begins to think of Alan as Mary's caretaker... a role he has no interest in accepting.
The film divides its time evenly between two separate-but-connected stories: the story of the lady in the van (accompanied by flashbacks that gradually reveal who she once was and how she became “the lady in the van”) and the story of Alan's inner conflict over what to do about the lady in the van. The problem with this is that the film assumes the two stories offer equal dramatic interest, which simply isn't the case. The film's examination of Mary is a fascinating portrait of a funny, tragic, unique human being, while its study of Alan is largely an exercise in self-indulgence. It's one thing to show us the story through Alan's eyes, but I wish Alan didn't spend so much time looking in the mirror.
Still, the quality gap between the two stories is at least partially disguised by the fact that both of the lead actors turn in terrific performances. Smith's vulgar turn as Mary is a tremendously enjoyable piece of work, and a refreshingly complex one: Smith refuses to let the character turn into a “foul old lady” caricature, continually revealing small pieces of the woman's hidden depths. Meanwhile, Jennings is pitch-perfect as the fussy, fidgeting Alan, playing the character like a shy, insecure variation on Truman Capote. Alan believes that every writer has a split personality: there's the person who writes, and the person who lives. The film reflects this idea by having the “two versions” of Alan have conversations with each other from time to time, though Jennings takes the clever approach of playing both versions the exact same way: they only do different things, they aren't actually different people.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the film is that it grows increasingly unsure of itself as it barrels towards the finish line. Alan's angst over how to go about telling Mary's story (and how much of it he should embellish... how much has he embellished, anyway?) informs much of the last act, and the film careens off into hallucinatory conversations, religious daydreams and fourth wall-breaking revelations. This stuff could have come across as as the film getting off on its own cleverness, but director Nicolas Hytner (who has collaborated with Bennett on many stage and screen productions) brings a gracefulness to the material that is curiously touching. Despite his insecurities and missteps, Alan Bennett has indeed given us a portrait of Mary Shepard that feels authentic, insightful and tender. It's a little messy, but there's something touchingly sincere about it.
The Lady in the Van
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 2015