It felt like a film that was going to be ruined by its trailer. Seemingly showing before numerous age appropriate features for the last umpteenth months, Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van appeared set to be light-hearted fodder with a comically vulgar turn from Maggie Smith at the helm.
Yes, this ‘mostly true story’ based on playwright Alan Bennett’s own memoirs may have Dame Mags as a not-so-pleasant OAP living rough in the back of a worn out van, but it’s turned out to be one of the most charming British gems to hit our screens this year.
Far more than a van-based retiree romp, this comes from the perspective of Bennett (Alex Jennings) – a mild-mannered Northern lad making his strides as an increasingly popular writer in the 70s and 80s – as Smith’s Ms Shepherd becomes, whether he realises it or not, a significant part of his day-to-day life.
Mary – or Margaret, the birth name she has tried hard to discard – is a highly religious woman with a dark secret which she wants to bury. Despite her lack of etiquette and general politeness, there’s a strange connection between Shepherd and Bennett – whether it’s the resemblance she holds to his out-of-sorts mother, or a reflection on his “fucking tame” life – the talented scribe lets the poo-stained former nun live on his drive for a remarkable 15 years.
The further we delve, the more interesting a life the miserable ol’ lady in the custard-coloured vehicle has lived. Nuns, music and blackmail have marked her life, yet Bennett, separated into two entirely different entities – the one who writes and the one who lives – is equally as intriguing.
There’s a sadness that looms over our male lead which makes for bittersweet viewing; questioning his talents and hiding his sexuality, it’s clear the role of this unusual woman in his life – despite his earlier protestations – has had a bigger impact than he ever could have imagined.
Smith and Jennings’ chemistry makes for often humorous and, on occasions, rather humbling viewing. There’s a lot to love about The Lady in the Van, and this beautifully written story – led by two extremely strong, yet contrasting performances – will easily swallow you up amongst the absurdity of it all.