‘I’m not a carer, I do not care’, rants Alex Jennings’ Alan Bennett at a social worker assigned to look in on the odd woman currently residing in a van in his driveway. Obviously, this is a delusion – The Lady in the Van is all about caring. After all, how else could Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) survive for 15 years on one street without ever once sleeping in a real bed? Whether they’re motivated by goodwill, paid to care, see a good story in helping her, or are simply driven by the guilt that infects the London middle class, the instinct to care is at the heart of this story, keeping it warmly watchable despite its harsher or more misjudged moments.
Adapted by Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner from their own stage play, based itself on Bennett’s memoirs, The Lady in the Van has one of the year’s most self-explanatory titles. There is a lady, and she lives in the van, and the slow and considered teasing out of exactly how she got into such a living situation is one of the film’s strongest elements. Maggie Smith is predictably excellent in the role, jolly, haunted, and cantankerous in swift succession without missing a beat. Alex Jennings is also a lot of fun as Bennett, and the supporting cast, particularly Roger Allam, are often properly funny. James Corden, Dominic Cooper, and Russell Tovey get the briefest of cameos (Corden is on screen for less than a minute), but they all manage to leave an impression.
The specifics of life in the van are handled with little discretion. If Miss Shepherd can’t get into Bennett’s house at the time, she has to use plastic bags as an in-van toilet, and her disposal methods clearly leave something to be desired. Bennett’s gradual hardening to the revulsion of Miss Shepherd’s lifestyle is believable – as he says himself ‘caring is all about shit’ – and the thinly veiled disgust of people who aren’t used to it reminds us that Bennett’s actions are genuinely altruistic. Parallels between Miss Shepherd and Bennett’s slowly declining mother (Gwen Taylor) are not subtle, but help to drive home exactly why he allows this previously transient woman to remain next to his home for 15 years.
The move from stage to screen allows Hytner some freedoms that he would not previously have been afforded in his adaptation of the story. The most effective use of the new medium is having the two separate Bennetts – one representing his writing personality, the other the persona he uses for living – talk to one another whilst being in the same room at the same time, thanks to some digital trickery. Small but notable costume changes – writing Bennett is slightly less buttoned up than his counterpart – help us tell them apart and give us an insight into Alan’s self-perception. However, Hytner gets horribly carried away in the last 10 minutes, a bewilderingly awful ending that would feel far more at home in a Monty Python film than this one, and devalues much of what’s come before.
It’s almost enough to unravel the film entirely, but it would be unfair to dismiss what is otherwise a warm and gently entertaining hour and a half. It does everything it can to appeal to its target audience, whilst also doing enough to hold the interest of a younger demographic, and features Maggie Smith rolling down a hill in a wheelchair, almost worth the price of admission on its own.