Well, with December almost half gone and the major releases of the year all but done and dusted, some might think it was time to start looking back and ruminating upon what kind of year 2015 has been, cinematically speaking. Time enough for that, though, when the festive interlude is upon us: for now, we have a look at a film which seems to spent most of the year being heavily trailed, presumably on the strength of its star. I speak of Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van.
This is one of those films which started off as a play, which started off as an idea of Bennett’s, which started off as some things which happened to the actor and playwright in real life. If you’re at all familiar with the writing of Alan Bennett you will probably be aware that the famously diffident gentleman in question spent fifteen years with a woman living on his front drive; the woman in question not being technically homeless, but only because she was ensconced in a series of delapidated vans on his property.
Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself, while Maggie Smith plays the title character. Events unfold over a period of nearly twenty years – things open in 1970, with Bennett moving into a fairly nice house in Camden and getting acquainted with his neighbours, one of whom – sort of – includes the enigmatic, and fairly foul-smelling, Miss Shepherd, whose van meanders up and down the street in accordance with divine guidance (if she is to be believed).
I say ‘events unfold’, but not a great deal actually happens in terms of, um, things actually happening. Miss Shepherd actually moves onto the drive. Vague clues as to her past emerge (not least as a result of repeated visits by a mysterious man played by Jim Broadbent). Bennett puts the odd play on. His neighbours are half-admiring, half-dismissive of what they see as his excessive generosity. His complex relationship with his mother continues.
It is an unashamedly theatrical piece, most obviously in the device where numerous scenes actually feature two Alan Bennetts – representing the one who writes about life, and the one who lives it respectively – both of whom are played by Jennings. There’s a touch of metatextuality going on as well – not only does the ‘real’ Alan Bennett show up to watch the film being made at one point, but there’s some amusing byplay where one Bennett carps at the other.
Bennett is such a distinctive individual that one would have forgiven Jennings for being a bit intimidated by the prospect of taking him on, but he does a sterling job – he produces a very recognisable Bennett without doing an obvious impersonation. This is a key strength of the movie, for – despite the title – the movie is really much more about Bennett than anything else. His distinctively wry and understated voice fills and flavours the entire movie, taking the details of everyday life and somehow making them profound and very amusing at the same time, while the story – such as it is – is about the nature of a writer’s engagement with the world, and Bennett’s own feelings towards his mother. Is he being so charitable towards Miss Shepherd simply out of a sense of guilt? Is she a sop to his conscience in the same way she permits his neighbours to expunge their upper-middle-class guilt by taking care of her, up to a point?
This isn’t really that sort of a film, but en passant it does make some sharp and occasionally witty points about charity in modern society and how privileged metropolitan types relate to the homeless. There’s a funny, if slightly predictable scene, in which two of Bennett’s wealthy neighbours, off to the opera, chortle with amusement as they speculate as to which house Miss Shepherd’s van will end up in front of next – only to respond with horror when she settles in front of their own home. Similarly, social services turn up once every three months to give Bennett a hard time over the way he cares for the woman he has to cope with every day.
All that said, Maggie Smith is terribly prominent in this movie, and it’s a part which really lets her have some fun – I’m by no means saying she in any way goes over the top, but it’s still a very big and very rich performance, though always shaded with pathos and a strange kind of dignity. I suppose, given Smith’s international stardom and general clout, it’s not really surprising that the film should be tweaked a little to favour her – because the final act of the piece undergoes a subtle but definite change in emphasis, moving the focus from Bennett to his ‘tenant’.
I’m not sure this necessarily helps the film, though whatever ground it loses it definitely recovers by the end, with a couple of cheeky touches including a somewhat Gilliam-esque piece of CGI animation. I turned up to this movie expecting something dour and slightly miserable and worthy, but the film is actually much more than that – witty, playful, and intelligent, though not without more serious moments. I suppose some of the pleasure of it would be reduced if you didn’t actually know who Alan Bennett was, and it’s not exactly got a supercharged plot, but I still think there is more than enough going on here to provide an enjoyable couple of hours for anyone interested in a film of ideas.