There is something quintessentially British about the story of an old lady living in a van on someones drive in Camden for 15 years. The true story, made into a play by British playwright Allan Bennett has now been adapted for the big screen with Maggie Smith, who played the central role on the West End reprising her role as the titular Lady in the Van.
Bennett’s tale is one that is almost stranger than fiction. The writer, who was just making his name in the West End moved into Camden in the 1970’s and befriended an old homeless lady who lived in a van on his estate. After being forced off the road by the introduction of yellow lines Bennett invited her to stay on his drive until she could get sorted- she ended up staying there for 15 years.
The lady in question is known as Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous former nun plagued by guilt and performed brilliantly by Maggie Smith. Having worked as Shepherd previously Smith has clearly honed her craft, managing to turn a bitter old lady into something of a heroine- a symbol of all that is weird and wonderful about Britain. Her performance is one that will no doubt get her name into the awards discussion as the year rolls by.
Bennett himself is played with precision by Alex Jennings. The film makes the rather interesting decision to split Bennett into two; one Bennett that goes out and deals with life, the other who sits at his typewriter merely observing. The exchanges between these two manages to allow the words of the writer to be spoken out loud, working as an effective tool in adapting it from the stage to the screen.
Not only is the film a tale of an eccentric old lady though, the relationship between Bennett and Shepherd also offers some very interesting observations on the nature of life and in many ways the nature of art. Bennett’s artist needs a muse, not just to write about but also to help him go out and live his life. In the opening phases the character is something of a recluse, he writes only of his mother and lives a very simple life. As the film progresses we see him begin to live his life more, he learns to embrace himself and his sexuality and also learns to tackle life with open hands. One can’t help but feel that Bennett needed Miss Shepherd just as much as she needed him. ‘You don’t put yourself in your writing, you write to find yourself’ Bennett notes late in the film and this resonates in the relationship between the artist and his muse.
The Lady in the Van is one of the most British films made in recent years. The perfect mix of dry humour and harsh, cutting observations on life. If the sight of Maggie Smith in a union jack draped wheelchair watching a TV through a Currys window doesn’t warm your cockles then nothing will.