I went to see ‘The Lady in the Van’. This is what I thought:
The collaboration of two quintessentially English characters in actress Maggie Smith and playwright Alan Bennett, ably played with due diffidence by Alex Jennings, and the addition of an extended very English ensemble of France de la Tour and Jim Broadbent, promised a tale involving deadpan humour, acute social observation and very English quirkiness.
In the telling of the story of Miss Shepherd, an independent but tortured soul who spent fifteen years living in a variety of camper vans parked firstly on the road outside and latterly on the drive of Bennett’s London apartment, the director Nicholas Hytner delivers with a distinctly ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in Camden Town in the 1970s feel.
Described as ‘a mostly true story’ it begins with a road accident which forever determines the fate of Miss Shepherd and the outcome of which she cannot forgive herself for, however much she seeks absolution through prayer and from her alma mater, the Catholic church. She even joins the local convent as a novice to try and expiate her guilt but all to no avail. As a kind of penance and coerced by a senior nun, she abandons her great gift of music – she trained as a concert-pianist in her youth – and we are given an insight into such a sacrifice by an evocative and moving piano based sound track.
Miss Shepherd is excellently portrayed by Maggie Smith as a smelly, awkward, demanding, somewhat androgynous eccentric, who is not quite down and out and whose face is like an etch-a-sketch screen where lines re-construct themselves to register and convey emotion and whose eyes are more expressive than a hundred of Margaret Keane’s sad-eyed urchins.
Typically droll and understated, Bennett’s script is predicated on the trick of creating a ‘working’ Bennett and a ‘living’ Bennett who comment obliquely on each other, on the antics of Miss Shepherd as she insinuates herself into his life and on the residents of the street who in Thatcherite Britain undermine the prime minister’s vicious contention that there’s ‘no society’ by becoming Miss Shepherd’s informal, if rather snooty, community.
More official, if less effectual, pillars of social support pay fleeting visits in the form of the Social worker, the Doctor and the Priest as Miss Shepherd’s story unfolds. Bennett also seasons his script by counterpointing his role as ‘de-facto’ carer of Miss Shepherd with his ambivalent relationship with his declining mother.
Bennett veers into the Pythonesque surreal and the ‘arty’ absorption of drama into ‘real-life’ as the film reaches its conclusion, but in all this is a very watchable, very English piece. I think Maggie Smith’s performance might be worth an Oscar but I don’t think the Yanks will get it, though I believe they do love Downton.