The Nicholas Hytner/Alan Bennett film The Lady in the Van is more British than Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, who while listening to Elgar as she boats on the Thames has a Union Jack sticking out of her purse. You get the picture.
But, and I say this as a true Anglophile, that’s not the only reason to love The Lady.
Directed by Hytner, the film is from a screenplay by Bennett that he’s adapted from a 2000 play he wrote of the same name. That was adapted from a novella, which he wrote as part of his 1994 memoir. And that had been adapted from an essay he’d written in 1989. And the germ of this long literary, theatrical, and cinematic gestation is one of those stories that, truly, could be said to happen “only in England.”
In the 1970’s Bennett was living in the London suburb Camden Town, populated by what he describes as “liberal, slightly guilty intellectuals.” He’d already made his mark as one of the four creators of the now-famous comedy revue “Beyond the Fringe”—along with legendary compatriots Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook. Working on his own, Bennett would write such plays as Forty Years On, Talking Heads, The Madness of George III and, perhaps his most popular, The History Boys.
Based on a True Story
But I’m getting ahead of myself; here’s the original story: It’s the 70’s, and a homeless woman shows up in a dilapidated van that she parks on a street in Bennett’s neighborhood. Over the next several years, she moves the van from street to street when she thinks nearby neighbors are losing patience. She’s become a kind of neighborhood fixture, one that residents might look upon as they would an unwelcomed stray cat, feeling too guilty or too sorry for it to tell authorities.
By 1974, the woman, Miss Mary Shepherd, is in crisis; the street curbs are to be painted, and if she doesn’t move her van, she’ll be towed. Bennett allows her to pull the van into his driveway—temporarily, mind you—until she gets herself “sorted out.” She’s still there 15 years later, until her death in 1989.
“In England,” as one of the characters says, “timidity is a virtue.” The neighbors are too shy, smug, or guilty to turn her in. But there’s also a long history of the Brits tolerating, if not loving, their eccentrics. Imagine the poor dear living in a U.S. neighborhood that long!
Bennett wrote the aforementioned article after the woman died, which he expanded to include in his memoirs, which became a play and then a screenplay. (Oh, I almost forgot. There was a radio drama version, as well.)
I read and liked the memoir, and assumed the movie version would be a straight-ahead retelling of his earlier tale, a typically quirky British comedy/drama about a lovable loony. Boy, was I wrong.
The film begins that way, but almost imperceptibly it turns into something else, and you suddenly realize you’re on a different journey.
Bennett inserts himself into the story—how could he not?—and he does so twice! There are two “Alan Bennetts,” both played (through the miracle of green screen) by Alex Jennings. One Alan continually questions the other as to why he allows the woman to stay. He even suggests several motives: (1) During the 70’s and 80’s, Bennett’s mother was succumbing to her own mental illness and was eventually placed in an institution. Was his toleration and arm’s-length concern a way of processing his own guilt? (2) An even darker allegation is that he allows her to stay because he knows that at some point it’s going to make a hell of a story. (Here’s a tip: Everyone in a writer’s life is fodder.)
Homeless and Mentally Ill
In flashbacks and scenes of almost no dialogue we learn more about Miss Shepherd: As a young woman, she was a promising pianist who was forced to give up music when she joined a convent. She struggled her whole life with mental illness—that often took on a religious fervor—and the film doesn’t sanitize or glamorize her condition. The rate of psychiatric disorders among the homeless is staggeringly high, and Lady in the Van is a startling reminder that street people are not the lazy loafers we like to pretend. They are people fighting battles about which we know very little.
We even come to see Bennett’s own struggle connecting to others, and is that he perhaps as emotionally isolated as Miss Shepherd—After all, he spends most of the movie talking to or fighting with himself.
Bennett and Hytner cover all this, and a whole lot more, without ever banging you on the head. Bennett is a master of relaxed, simple dialogue, and he has the terrific ability to speak volumes using only a few words. Thankfully, Hytner is smart enough to realize that Bennett’s screenplay does a lot of the heavy lifting, and, as a director, he just needs to get the story on-screen in the most effective and honest way possible. His other job, of course, is guiding the actors through this deceptively simply story … and he certainly does that .
The Dame is Grand
Maggie Smith (or should I say Dame Maggie?) recreates the role of Miss Shepherd, which she played in the 2000 stage version to effusive acclaim, praise, I assure you, that wasn’t overdone. Every review I’ve read of the movie makes the obvious reference to Smith trading her Lady Grantham Downton Abbey drag for the rags she wears in The Lady, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll say her performance is a tremendous juggling act of obstreperousness, snobbery, fear, fury, and, finally, loss.
Lost in the (justifiable) hullabaloo over Smith is Jennings and his impeccable portrayal of both Bennetts. This is a man aching for connection who, out of sheer terror, has numbed himself to his own needs. Jennings hits the nail on the head. He underplays Bennett’s intelligence and wit beautifully, and isn’t afraid to show the character’s selfishness and anger.
There’s a host of British character actors parading through the movie, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent, all of them top-notch; and Bennett/Hytner fans will have fun spotting the entire cast from The History Boys in comedic cameos (James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, etc.).
The Brits once again have sent another cinematic winner from across the pond …
… and God Save the Queen!
Lady in the Van poster courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics and Wikipedia.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.