Good nature is “nine times out of 10 mere indolence of disposition” – William Hazlitt
The Lady in the Van is and is not about the lady in the van, AKA Miss Margaret (or Mary) Shepherd (or Fairchild.) A more accurate title, with a nod to the late John Mortimer, might be A Voyage Around Alan Bennett, this being a quintessentially English autobiographical tale (screenplay by Bennett) of not one but two Bennetts but only one lady. That’s right – Alex Jennings plays Bennett not once but twice: the Bennett who does the writing and the Bennett who allegedly does the living; needless to say, they bicker constantly. Tell a lie, there are three Bennetts, since the real Bennett briefly joins the action right at the end.
The film tells the tale of Bennett’s life in Camden, gives him the opportunity to mock the middle class attitudes of his neighbours (who are every bit as idiosyncratic as Miss Shepherd), to review at length his regrets over his relationship with his mother in Yorkshire, to hint darkly and, by the end, directly about the much-discussed Bennett sexuality – Bennett being the protagonist – and in so doing uses as its primary antagonist the bag lady who spent 15 years living in her dilapidated van on Bennett’s drive.
We begin with the notice that this is mostly a true story, in the way that almost all Bennett fiction is actually more a patchwork of acute observation and thinly-disguised reality. The blur between true life, Bennett’s recollections and interpretations, plus the odd fictional surmise to fill in the gaps, is how the great man built his career. That he has become a revered and treasured member of our artistic establishment is due in no small part to the gentleness of his humour, to his ready and sharpened wit, and the fact that we can all see our loved ones in his words.
So it is here. Miss Shepherd (played, as on the stage, by another national treasure of the same vintage as Bennett, the inestimable Maggie Smith), an ex-nun and gifted pianist, apparently having killed a motorcyclist and panicked, makes her way to the leafy streets of Camden, from where she moves around the streets before settling, almost by accident, on the unoccupied drive of chez Bennett, from where Bennett the writer can apply his techniques of acute observation over an extended period and hone the glorious and funny lines we can now enjoy. That we can see him doing it makes this a very knowing, self-conscious and self-deprecatory comedy of manners.
Through Bennett’s eyes we see and hear much of the rude and cantankerous Miss Shepherd. I wish I could remember the full volley of verbal abuse the fictional Bennett uses to describe his guest, though not directly to her face (I suspect Bennett would never be that rude to anyone in real life.) Worst of all is the shit; Mr Bennett does not take kindly to stepping on turds in his drive, though he is in this the author of his own misfortunes, given that he requests Miss Shepherd not to use the upstairs toilets, an affront to her self-respect.
And yet… the underlying affection for the lady is palpable, even if our knowledge of her is sketchy. We know she has money, though we do not know where or how she acquires it, other than being paid off by her brother in Broadstairs from sheer guilt. We gradually learn selected highlights about her past, just enough to explain the outward psychology but nary enough to compile a full picture of the lady. It’s a safe bet her finally being taken up to heaven at the end is a flight of Bennett fancy, though we can be assured his tongue is firmly in his cheek.
What we do know is this: Dame Maggie Smith is a rare and precious actor, one of few who capable of wringing every last ounce of comic potential and pathos from the role. Her face portrays every tic and nuance, the moments of pleasure and pain, with glee. You cannot help but feel rapturous joy while watching Smith perform. She is perfect, and there are seldom performances about which that epithet can be applied. She will almost certainly gain an Oscar nomination, and you could not argue if she crowns a glittering career with the most prestigious honour.
Jennings, meanwhile, has Bennett off to a tee, though not just taking the piss. Jennings has picked up the knack of being the subject while remaining steadfastly self-effacing, in the background of Bennett’s alter ego as if he is there in body but not quite in spirit. Bennett he writer is surely the real deal, though we learn remarkably little of how his brain ticks. In short, for all his presence on screen and participation in his own saga, this is an egoless Bennett painted by Bennett and portrayed by Jennings, arguably the least believable component of the drama: who else could be less heroic in his own autobiography?
Needless to say, there is also a cast of fine British character actors to fill in the roles, including two whom I saw recently in Mr Holmes (the excellent Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour.) They are uniformly excellent, as you would expect of a cast that served time doing rep and learning their trade from the ground up.
I suspect many American viewers may not “get” The Lady In The Van, but if you are British you will almost certainly appreciate it, just as you loved Bennett’s Talking Heads and The History Boys, to name but two. Go enjoy our national treasures while there is still time!