Synopsis: In the early 1970s, writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moves into a middle-class street in Camden Town, London. He soon discovers that a cantankerous old woman named Mary Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) is living in a van and moving it from time to time. When she is forced to park the van elsewhere, Alan allows her to stay in his driveway temporarily. Over the course of fifteen years, the pair forge an unlikely bond despite their differing personalities.
Basing this film on his own personal memoirs, Alan Bennett does a commendable job adapting them onto the big-screen with help from his director and good friend Nicholas Hytner. As expected from the trailers, the film injects a strong brand of witty humour and physical laughs which all come from the intelligent script.
However the dramatic elements become apparent straight from the outset as we see an active Miss Shepherd clearly distressed by an incident that becomes the crux towards her homeless lifestyle. But the narrative flourishes from its focus of how this lady in the van would play a significant part in the lives of her neighbours particularly Alan himself.
Dame Maggie Smith dominates the film throughout as she produces a ferocious performance as the obnoxious old woman causing heartache for those around her. As well as playing her as an eccentric and comical individual, Smith also makes us sympathetic to the character as we discover the tragic guilt she has gone through in her past.
As the main man himself and sporting an exceptional Yorkshire accent, Alex Jennings is top notch especially when sharing the screen with his veteran co-star. These scenes are a joy to watch as we see him constantly begrudge his decision to help this woman yet ultimately ends up admiring her over the years.
The rest of the supporting cast aren’t quite as memorable although Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay are a hoot as the snobby couple living opposite Alan while the ever-consistent Jim Broadbent returns to ‘Roy Slater’ mode as the slimy ex-cop who torments Mary. Bennett also makes the unique decision of handing cameos to some of his former actors including Dominic Cooper and the hugely popular James Corden, the latter of whom produces one of the film’s biggest laughs.
However there are flaws to the story that prevent this feature from reaching the successful heights of recent Brit-biopics like Philomena and Pride. The film takes its time in explaining about the shocking event that haunted Mary and is only mentioned briefly in the climax. The ending itself also takes it to a different level with a bizarre sequence that almost feels like you’re watching a Monty Python sketch. It’s also worth mentioning that Alan’s double narration can be a little confusing to deal with even if it’s supposed to make us understand his differing opinions.
Whilst it lacks the gravitas of the aforementioned British films of recent times, The Lady in the Van is a comforting story that excels from its splendid lead performances and dramedy elements.