A charming memoir of a smelly, prickly old lady, The Lady in the Van, directed by Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys), is based on material performed first as a stage play, then a radio play. Surprisingly, it hasn’t lost any of its keenness as a movie.
The story’s writer and subject is Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), a playwright who had his first breakthrough as part of the Beyond the Fringe quartet that paved the way for Monty Python. When Bennett moved in 1973 to Gloucester Crescent in London’s Camden Town, it was a changing district, awaiting the gentry who inhabit it today. Priding themselves on their liberality, the neighbors put up with one Miss Mary Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith), a transient old lady living in her van. When the parking police tried to run her off, Bennett allowed her to park in his driveway. She would be encamped there for 15 years.
The role is so right for Smith that it might be easy to underrate her very tough and touching work here. Mary Shepherd is a strong soul; we never really think of this 80-year-old performer’s fragility until the end of the film, when her character’s `health fails.
Bennett, not an enormous fan of the physical world, admires the way the ambulance people and social workers handle this exasperating woman without minding her moods or her smell. He downplays his own ability to stand her bad tendencies, such as Miss Shepherd’s habit of soiling his driveway.
It’s bemusing to imagine the army of people in their vans, trucks and campers today, displaced by the obscene rents of the Bay Area, being looked after with the care and dignity demonstrated by the characters in this story. The Lady in the Van wells up with compassion; it never drills for it.
‘The Lady in the Van’ is playing at the Century Regency, 280 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael. 415.479.6496