By William Wolf


I first saw this memoir by Alan Bennett in his play that reflected a personal experience that happened to him, an elderly woman recluse living in a van parked on his property for 15 years. “The Lady in the Van” starred Dame Maggie Smith in the role of Mary Shepherd, the lady in question, and the result was quite entertaining and sometimes touching.

Now, also under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, the work has been turned into a film, with Maggie Smith, now older and with lines in her face magnified on screen, reprising her Shepherd role. Dame Maggie acts with her customary skill and scene-stealing ability. One could say the role is made for her, and she extracts every bit of comedy and pathos contained in the screenplay, which Bennett wrote.

Yet, when transferred to film, what seemed charming on stage becomes somewhat wearisome in its blown up form. Yes, Smith still is arrogant, annoying and living in filth, while driving her reluctant host mad and appalled at the way in which she lives in that van, even as he befriends her. But what’s effective on stage as an oddity doesn’t necessary translate well in a movie.

Bennett was shrewd enough to mine the material for his original comedy-drama, even to the point of making himself the character who frames the action and participates in it. As screenwriter, he keeps the concept of being a split character with two Bennetts who can converse with one another. Both are played by Alex Jennings. One is a man of action, the other a man of contemplation.

“The Lady in the Van” as well as being a colorful character study, is a mystery. Who is this obstinate woman and from where does she come? We learn the answers at the end, and there is an emotional pull as well as enlightenment.

I would venture that one who has never seen the stage production might find the film more fascinating than I do. Above all, there is that performance by Smith, now indelibly captured for posterity. Posted October 4, 2015.


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