When you see vagrants sleeping rough in doorways it is grimly fascinating to wonder how they got there. Was it a gradual descent due to drink or drugs? Or was it an ‘explosive decompression’ – an event so dramatic it capsized an otherwise stable existence? In a gripping pre-title sequence, it is the latter that sets up the backstory for Miss Shepherd – the titular “Lady in the Van” played by the marvellous Dame Maggie Smith.
Based on a “mostly true” story, Miss Shepherd lives in an old Bedford van progressing from unwelcome parking space to unwelcome parking space in the well-to-do Gloucester Crescent in Camden (a street that strangely the Google Streetview car has never ventured down!).
This introduces us to a selection of the local residents, including – bizarrely – the wife of composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams (Frances de la Tour). The wily Miss Shepherd can however spot a soft touch from miles away and latches onto the newest resident, famous playwright Alan Bennett played (in multiple concurrent forms) by Alex Jennings (doing a fine impersonation). When yellow-lines necessitate action, Miss Shepherd wheedles her van onto his driveway for “three months”: three months that turns into 15 years.
I was in two minds from the trailer as to whether I wanted to see this film or not, and I’m so pleased that I did. What stands out, and what makes it so enjoyable, is the whip-smart and intelligent script by Bennett, based on his memoirs. The use of two Bennetts – one ‘doing the writing’ and one ‘doing the living’ – could be considered contrived, but allows the frustrations and inner demons (concerning his ailing mother ‘up north’) to be given a witty and articulate voice.
Despite getting progressively typecast as a vaguely batty old woman, Dame Maggie excels as the troubled Miss Shepherd – it is difficult to imagine many other actresses being able to pull off this larger than life role any better. When pathos is required (e.g. “Why did you choose to live like this?”; “I didn’t choose… I was chosen”) she delivers it in heart breaking fashion. But her more comic pronouncements, such as the one about the number of “young men” visiting Bennett’s house at “every hour of the day and night” obviously being “communists”, were hilarious. What appears on the surface to be a mildly humourous movie turned out to have some serious belly-laughs.
Less successful in the film is the normally excellent Jim Broadbent, playing a retired copper with an unhealthy interest in the old lady. While this may have been a true part of the story, it really didn’t come across very satisfactorily, and the scenes seem brash and out of kilter with the mood of the rest of the film.
A selection of cameos in the film include Dominic Cooper (“Captain America”, “Mamma Mia”) and (proving how long this film has been in the can) the now US celebrity presenter James Corden.
The slightly surreal ending of the film, set in a graveyard, might not be to everyone’s taste, but I personally enjoyed it and it added to the kookiness of what turned out to be a pretty kooky film.
The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner. Although having a few notable movies to his credit (“The Madness of King George”, “The History Boys”), he is better known as a regular director for National Theatre productions in London, and the film does have something of a ‘stagy’ feel about it. But as an example of a quintessential British film, based on a ‘true’ subject that seems barely credible, it makes for a heart-warming and highly entertaining trip to the movies. And in this week of the dreadful events in Paris, we could all do with that. Recommended.
Fad Rating: FFFF.