Lady in the Van review: Alan Bennett’s everywhere, but Maggie Smith shines

The cyclonic Smith has an indecently appropriate role in this starry film adaptation by Bennett of his own hit West-End play

Maggie Smith as Mary Shepherd in The Lady in the Van, “the woman Jean Brodie might have become had the wheels come off”.

Film Title: The Lady in the Van

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Taylor, Jim Broadbent, David Calder, James Corden, Russell Tovey

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 104 min

Thu, Nov 12, 2015, 16:30

   

How much Alan Bennett can you take? More than a few readers of this newspaper – surely, among his natural audience – would reply: “How much have you got?” Be careful what you wish for. Though impeccably acted and bubbling with good jokes, the film version of The Lady in the Van comes close to Bennettian super-saturation.

Alex Jennings plays two versions of Alan (a “character” since moping onto stage in the early 1960s). One is the man who lived these experiences. The other is the writer who translates them for our consumption. If that is not enough for you, then hang on for a glimpse of the real Alan in the closing frames.

It feels as if Bennett is working hard – too hard – at keeping a slightly thin concept aloft. The story of his relationship with Mary Shepherd, a houseless (if not quite homeless) woman who lived in the Bennett driveway for 15 years, first produced a slim volume for the London Review of Books and then a popular play. It is now running out of petrol.

This is not to suggest that Miss Shepherd herself is anything less than fascinating. Ultimately providing the cyclonic Maggie Smith with an indecently appropriate role, the elderly lady was already parking her van in a posh part of Camden when Bennett arrived in the 1970s. If we believe the writer (and we don’t), it was embarrassment as much as kindness that saw him tolerate her extended presence in the front garden. “You wouldn’t get Harold Pinter pushing your van,” he remarks.

Frances de La Tour is delightful as the widow of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Roger Allam is equally good as a composite neighbour who exemplifies all the conditional, flamboyant tolerance of the North London liberal. Fluting her lines with an astringent musicality, Smith convinces us that this is the woman Jean Brodie might have become had the wheels come off.

The problem is that, like Miss Shepherd’s van, the story rarely moves. She remains gracelessly the same throughout. Narrative details are plucked out like unattached footnotes. When the character does open up – during a bafflingly appalling final scene – we rather wish the doors had remained shut.

Never mind. Too much Bennett is still better than none at all. DONALD CLARKE