Billed as “a mostly true story” and adapted from Alan Bennett’s awardwinning play by the author himself, The Lady in the Van stars Maggie Smith in the title role.
That, in itself, makes the film worthwhile. The delightful Dame pulls out all the stops as Mary Shepherd, an elderly eccentric who lives in a van putters around the bucolic borough of Sussex, where she is treated with a combination of bemused tolerance and barely-concealed disdain by her neighbors – chief among them a playwright named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), himself a bit eccentric.
Bennett allows Mary to park her dilapidated van (and home) in his driveway, thus beginning a 15-year relationship, one that is fraught with humor and not a little tension. Underneath Mary’s doddering, prickly veneer lurks a lonely, wounded soul. Bennett’s attempts to learn the truth only yield bits and pieces from her tortured past.
The Lady in the Van is essentially a twohander, although Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay and Cecilia Noble drift in and out of the narrative periodically. The prominently billed and ever-wonderful Jim Broadbent, however, is basically relegated to a cameo appearance, although he does provide important exposition at the end.
Smith, reprising her award-winning stage role (which she also played on English radio), and Jennings have an enjoyable giveand-take throughout, and one of the film’s more amusing conceits is that Jennings plays both Bennett and his conscience, materializing on a regular basis to chide and goad him(self).
Under the direction of Nicholas Hytner (also a producer), who also directed the stage version, The Lady in the Van falters mainly in its pacing, which is slow-moving to the point of arthritic. The story certainly takes its time arriving at its destination (which, incidentally, is conveyed in livelier terms than what has preceded it), and as a result feels longer than its 104 minutes. Smith is a pleasure and a treasure, however, and she’s always worth watching.