First a memoir, then a play, a radio adaptation, and now a feature film, Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van tells the story of Bennett and his 15 year-long association with elderly down-and-out Miss Shepherd, who resided in a battered old van parked in his driveway for much of those years.

Bennett once again teams up with director Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys) to bring the story to the medium of film, once again casting Maggie Smith as the titular character, whom she played previously on stage in 1999 as well as in the 2009 radio adaptation. It’s a wonderfully nuanced, eccentric and vulnerable performance from Smith, who really gets under the skin of the character, giving us not a caricature of a mad woman, but someone who feels truly real and human, something no doubt down to Bennett’s immaculate characterization and witty script.

The Lady in the Van Review

In fact, it’s the script that surprises and delights the most, despite the brilliant comedic performances from Smith and Alex Jennings (who stars as Bennett). Layered with dry English wit, hilarious observations and asides, as well as bit of gross humour to boot, Bennett’s script goes surprisingly meta, and at times, even absolutely fourth wall breaking bats**t insane. Bennett’s habit of talking to himself is visually personified by the frequent appearance of another Bennett, a sneery and judgemental soul who does the writing, whilst the real Bennett does the living. It’s a great and eccentric choice that saves us from endless scenes of Alex Jennings simply pacing about talking to himself, and injects the film with a bit more visual flourish then one would expect from a quirky but quaint British comedy.

If there’s any criticism to aim at The Lady In the Van, then it would be that the film perhaps gives away too much about the main character way too early, meaning that any chance of some genuine mystery surrounding her and her past is squandered. That’s not to say that the film is uninteresting, far from it, but perhaps with a bit more restraint, the film would perhaps have more in the way of big reveals in the final act.

The Lady in the Van Review

Criticism aside though, it certainly is a marvellous little story, skilfully bought to life by both writer and director, as well as Smith and Jennings, both of whom get entirely lost in their character’s lives and mannerisms. Perhaps the main narrative goes exactly the way one would expect, but Bennett throws in some marvellous and absolutely crazy meta-humour in for good measure, elevating an already smart and light-hearted script and gifting it with something original and surprising.