Alec Guinness is remembered for playing seven different roles in the classic English comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. In Nicholas Hytner’s film, The Lady in the Van, Maggie Smith goes one better. At different times she’s a crazy old woman, a street beggar, a nun, a belligerent suburban mischief-maker, a well-to-do motorist, an incarcerated lunatic, a kindly old biddy and an aspiring concert pianist – all embodied in the person of Mary Shepherd, the film’s formidable central character. It’s an acting tour de force for which Dame Maggie has received awards and much critical acclaim. It seems a pity to strike a critical note.
The film is adapted from a play by Alan Bennett. Many consider the play a classic, but it’s well to remember Bennett’s own definition of a classic book – “one that everyone is assumed to have read and often think they have.” I won’t assume that everyone has seen Bennett’s play, but audiences love it and I have warm memories of the late Ruth Cracknell playing Miss Shepherd on the Sydney stage. But Maggie Smith has made the part her own: she was in the original London production in 1999 and in a radio version Bennett adapted for the BBC. Her character can be described as a seriously deranged version of the imperious countess and family matriarch she played in Downton Abbey. And everyone, of course, remembers Downton Abbey. To judge from early box-office returns for Hytner’s movie, especially in the US, Downton Abbey fans are flocking in great numbers to The Lady in the Van.
As an opening title informs us, it’s “a mostly true story.” One day in 1984, a woman calling herself Mary Shepherd drives a battered old van into Gloucester Crescent, a street of grand Georgian houses in a posh part of north London. Filthy, unwashed, and clad in soiled rags, Miss Shepherd makes it clear that she intends to remain in her van and leave it parked in Gloucester Crescent for as long as she wishes – a prospect that hardly appeals to Bennett’s hoity-toity neighbours , who include a certain “Mrs Vaughan-Williams” (Frances de la Tour), who may or may not be the wife of the composer. Bennett (nicely played by a wonderfully look-alike Alex Jennings) feels a little sorry for the old girl and lets her park her van in his driveway. And here she remains for the next 15 years, venturing out for short walks, rides in a wheelchair, encounters with bemused strangers and one enforced visit to a local doctor.
Like the play, the film is an uneasy mixture of comedy, pathos and sentimental kitsch. There are plenty of clever lines (this is an Alan Bennett script, after all), but the comedy consists largely in the spectacle of Miss Shepherd behaving like a graceless old ratbag. Much is made of her bodily odour. People are constantly recoiling from her presence with a disdainful twitch of the nose or wave of the hand, and there’s a brief moment in a cathedral when Miss Shepherd, apparently a regular worshipper, crosses the floor while a priestly voice intones: “The air freshener is behind the Virgin.” She may be a pious soul, but she isn’t above stealing holy water from the church to put in the radiator of her van. All reasonable requests from other s are parried with one of two impatient lines: “I’m a busy woman” (hardly believable), or “I’m a sick woman” (probably true). No thanks are offered for casual courtesies or even for the Christmas gifts brought to the van by neighbourhood children. Miss Shepherd is very hard to like, and for the film to work I think we need to like her rather more than we can bring ourselves to do.
With a little research Bennett discovers that Miss Shepherd’s real name is Margaret Fairchild, a pianist and former pupil of the great Alfred Cortot, with whom she has studied in Paris. Committed by her brother to an asylum for the insane (as mental hospitals were once known), she somehow manages to escape, and while driving her van on a country road collides with a motorcyclist, who is badly injured in the crash. Fearing she will blamed for the motorcyclist’s injuries, she flees the scene, only to be blackmailed by a crooked cop (Jim Broadbent), who has discovered her secret and agrees to keep silent for a price.
All very strange – and no doubt “mostly true.” But there are too many loose ends to the story. What happens to the motorcyclist? What has brought on Margaret’s illness – the trauma of her accident or the encroachment of age and dementia? She acts like a pauper but surely she has a source of income – how else to pay her blackmailer and afford to own, not one van, but two or three (the original being replaced by a gleaming and much bigger new model)? Bennett might have done more to enlighten us. Yes, it’s a comedy of sorts, if you enjoy seeing a devout young woman succumb to illness and the rigours of penury and squalor.
Unlike Alec Guinness, Alex Jennings plays only two roles. He is both Bennett himself and Bennett’s identical alter ego – and often they’re together in the same frame. One of them, we are told, is the “real-life” Bennett, the other the writer tapping away on his typewriter while he tells the story. It’s an unnecessary gimmick concocted for the movie, but Bennett is such a mild and self-effacing character that his double-sided presence never feels overbearing. It’s just as well we don’t get two Maggie Smiths playing two Miss Shepherds. That would be overdoing things in a film already overdone.
The Lady in the Van, rated M, is in national release.