There’s a richly odoriferous quality to this new film of Alan Bennett’s memoir about how he struggled to contend with the bag lady who lived at the end of his drive for 15 years.
It starts with Bennett describing her pungent presence in terms of onions and old newspaper, which conjures up a near visible whiff that permeates the rest of the movie. Then towards the end, and in lieu of a more conventional moral, we’re told, with decidedly unglamorous honesty, that “caring is about shit” as the defeated writer rinses yet another of the tramp’s turds off his brown Brogues.
Not a lot happens in The Lady In The Van, as you can probably tell — the closest the film gets to an action sequence is a wheelchair rolling down a hill. It’s essentially a sedate though often spiky character study about two lost souls in north London. On one side we have Miss Shepherd, the eponymous heroine, who sits unwashed in her vehicle listening to Radio 4 and arguing with anyone who tries to move her along. She’s played with cantankerous glee by Maggie Smith, who is clearly enjoying this break from her role as the starched matriarch of Downton Abbey.
On the other side, it’s the writer, sitting at his desk and trying to get on with his plays despite his own self-doubt and the distracting eccentric he can see through the window of his study. Alex Jennings plays Bennett in an amusing dual performance (which could teach Tom Hardy a lesson or two in subtlety). The character of Bennett is split in twain so ‘the one who lives’ can argue with ‘the one who writes’ — which is a smart way round the problem of turning a diary into a drama and for the most part works well.
There is a further doppleganger in the form of Bennett’s mother, who is of a similar age to Miss Shepherd and also needs looking after. She lives up north however, which forces the writer into a guilt-ridden state of agitation: should he not spend more time visiting mam before he’s used up his limited supply of compassion on the stranger squatting in his yard?
Whether you like this film or not will probably depend on whether you’re already a convert to Alan Bennett’s world view of squeezed tea bags and Battenberg, maroon tank tops and slippers. There are plenty of good lines: he compares the van’s handbrake cranking into place to Excalibur being wedged in the stone — never to be moved again. And pleasingly many of the quirkier observations that pepper the original book are sewn into the script regardless of whether the story needs them or not: “I saw two nuns in Marks and Spencer buying meringues.”
Director Nicholas Hytner is probably the best person to recreate the permanent autumn of Bennett’s imagination. This is their third collaboration on celluloid after The Madness Of King George and The History Boys, not mention the many shows they put on together at the National Theatre. There are also brief but fun cameos by alumni of these projects including James Corden, Russell Tovey, Frances De La Tour and Dominic Cooper.
Adding extra verisimilitude is the fact that the film was shot in Bennett’s actual house in Gloucester Crescent with Film London helping, and the filmmakers securing the co-operation of the neighbours via meetings in the local pub. This use of the real location adds a great deal of atmosphere and poignancy to the drama.
Hytner commented: “The film is about a specific writer, in a specific study, looking out on a specific drive on a specific street. The use of the house and street adds authenticity that would be impossible to replicate elsewhere… Liberal Camden Town and its colony of artists and writers are crucial to the action.”
It’s good to see a growing trend away from cliched shots of London landmarks in favour of real bits of town with real rather than imaginary character. It might not always smell that sweet but it’s the city we want to see on screen.
The Lady In The Van is on general release from 13 November.