7 out of 10

Release Date: 13th November 2015

Director: Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys / Center Stage / Object of Affection / The Crucible (1996) / The Madness of King George III)

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Gwen Taylor, Deborah Findlay, Cecilia Noble, David Calder, Pandora Colin, Nicholas Burns, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Russell Tovey, Dermot Crowley, Sacha Dhawan, Andrew Knott, Alan Bennett with Marion Bailey, James Corden and Dominic Cooper

Writer: Alan Bennett


The-Lady-in-the-Van-Teaser-PosterBased on a memoir by Alan Bennett about Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman who lived in a van on his driveway for 15 years. Played here by Alex Jennings (WINGS OF A DOVE) and Maggie Smith (SISTER ACT) it’s a colourful and funny film that’s not all together successful.

First off, it seems mean-spirited to criticise such a charming film about such an uncharming pair but the clever device of using two Alan Bennett’s (one to live and one to write) has been done better in Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. It’s a cheekie swipe for which the film will take a lot of credit, as many of the audience won’t have seen the latter. The film’s also wildly uneven with Jim Broadbent (THE SENSE OF AN ENDING) popping in to deliver one of his crappest performances in a long time. Elsewhere, we have stock actors playing parts they can essay in their sleep – hello Roger Allam (SPEED RACER) as smarmy creep neighbour number one and Frances de la Tour (RISING DAMP) as good-spirited over-familiar posh bird.  Another distraction is a parade of cameos from the cast of director Nicholas Hyntner and Alan Bennett’s last film collaorbation – The History Boys. About six or seven of them pootle on for one scene. And when the film goes all meta at the end with a walk-on by the real Alan Bennett, you’re wondering what it’s all for?  Finally, storytelling devices that were used by Fellini or Kiaraostami have crept into the silver pound genre!

Anyway, I’ll stop being a miser now, because I actually found it very funny and enjoyable inspite of its shortcomings. There’s nothing quite so funny as a facetious bit of backchat by Alan Bennett and there’s a fair bit here. No spoilers shall I give but the scene with Marion Bailey’s (MEANTIME) nun was my favourite. It was also sad when it needed to be and even though is was full of annoying story-telling gimmicks, the script and the actors gave the whole film a sinereity rarely felt in films aimed at old biddies (see Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the height of cynical filmmaking).

7 out of 10 – Very well played and welcome return for actor / director partnership Bennett and Hytner. I wish they’d have played the film straight rather than have such a fussy structure. They pull it off on this occassion but only just – because they’re bacon was saved by the two leads – who deserve awards respectively.

Second review from Turd in a Box – Matt Usher below…


  • Maggie Smith: Downton Abbey (TV), Second Best Marigold Hotel, My Old Lady, Quartet, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Harry Potter – 1 to 8, Nanny McPhee 2, Keeping Mum, Ladies In Lavender, Gosford Park, Tea With Mussollini, Washington Square, The First Wives’ Club, Richard III (1995), The Secret Garden, Sister Act 1 & 2, Hook, A Room With a View, A Private Function, The Missionary, California Suite, Death On The Nile, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Othello (1965)
  • Alex Jennings: Denial, Lucky Man (TV), Castles In The Sky, Silk (TV), Belle, Trap For CinderellaWe’ll Take ManhattanThe Disappeared, The Queen, The Wings Of The Dove, War Requiem
  • Jim Broadbent: The Legend of Tarzan, Bridget Jones 3, The Sense of an Ending, Eddie The Eagle, War & Peace (TV), Brooklyn, Big Game, Get Santa, Paddington, Postman Pat (voice), The Harry Hill Movie, Closed Circuit, Le Week-EndFilth, Cloud Atlas, The Iron Lady, Arthur Christmas (voice)Another Year, Harry Potter- part 8, Harry Potter- part 6, The Damned United, Young Victoria, Inkheart, Indiana Jones 4, Hot Fuzz, Chronicles Of Narnia- The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, Bridget Jones 2, Vera Drake, Vanity Fair, Bright Young Things, Nicholas Nickleby (2002), Gangs Of New York, Iris, Moulin Rouge, Bridget Jones, Little Voice, Topsy Turvy, The Avengers, The Borrowers, Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, The Secret Agent, Rough Magic, Richard III (1995), Princess Caraboo, Bullets Over Broadway, Widow’s Peak, The Crying Game, Enchanted April, Life Is Sweet, Erik The Viking, Vroom, Brazil
  • Frances de la Tour: Alice In Wonderland 2, Vicious (TV), Miss You Already, Survivor (2015), Mr Holmes, Vicious (TV), Into The Woods, Trap for Cinderella, Private Peaceful, Hugo, Harry Potter- Parts 4 & 7, Alice In Wonderland (2010), The Book Of Eli, The History Boys, Rising Damp (TV)
  • Roger Allam: The Hippopotamus, The Truth Commisioner, Endeavour (TV),  Mr Holmes, A Royal Night Out, The Book Thief (voice), Game of Thrones (TV), The Angel’s ShareThe Woman In BlackThe Iron Lady, Tamara Drewe, V Is For Vendetta, Speed Racer, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, A Cock and Bull Story
  • Gwen Taylor: Another Mother’s Son, Coronation Street (TV), Heartbeat (TV), Barbara (TV), Came Out It Rained Went Back In Again, A Bit of a Do (TV), Duty Free (TV)
  • Deborah Findlay: Truly Madly Deeply
  • David Calder: Queen of the Desert, Rush (2013), Titanic (TV), Teh Mummy 3, Mr In-Between, The King Is Alive, James Bond – The World Is Not Enough, Fairytale, Hollow Reed, American Friends, Defence of the Realm, Widows 2 (TV), Widows (TV)
  • Nicholas Burns: War Book, The World’s End, Benidorm (TV), Nathan Barley (TV)
  • Claire Foy: Rosewater, Wolf Hall (TV), Vampire Academy, Wreckers, Upstairs/Downstairs (TV), Season Of The Witch
  • Stephen Campbell Moore: The Ones Below, Man Up, Johnny English 2, Season Of The Witch, The Bank Job,  The History Boys, Bright Young Things
  • Russell Tovey: The Hippopotamus, The Pass, Blackwood, Effie Gray, Pride (2014), Muppets Most Wanted, Grabbers, Tower Block, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (voice), Huge, The History Boys, Being Human (TV)
  • Dermot Crowley: Luther (TV), Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, Holy Waters, Bleak House (TV)(1995), James Bond – Octopussy, Star Wars – Return of The Jedi
  • Sacha Dhawan: Chuggington (TV) (voice), Utopia (TV), 24 (TV), Last Tango In Halifax (TV), Splintered, Bradford Riots, The History Boys
  • Andrew Knott: Spike Island, Sex & Drugs & Rock-n-Roll,  In Our Name, The History Boys, Where The Heart Is (TV), Black Beauty (1994), The Secret Garden
  • Alan Bennett: Meg & Mog (TV), Telling Tales (TV), Fortunes of War (TV), On The Margin (TV), Talking Heads (dir) (TV), Jackanory (TV)
  • Marion Bailey: Mr Turner, Vera Drake, All or Nothing, Nasty Neighbours, Shine On Harvey Moon (TV), Mean Time
  • James Corden: The Late Late Show With James Corden (TV), Norm of the North (voice), Kill Your Friends, Into The Woods, One Chance, The Three Musketeers (2011), Telstar, Gulliver’s Travels (2010), Gavin and Stacey (TV), Horne & Corden (TV), Lesbian Vampire Killers, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, The History Boys, Starter For 10, Pierrepoint, Fat Friends (TV), Teachers (TV), Heartlands, All or Nothing, Whatever Happened To Harold Smith? Twentyfourseven
  • Dominic Cooper: Warcraft, Preacher (TV), Miss You Already, Agents of SHIELD (TV), Dracula Untold, Need For Speed, Fleming (TV), Summer In February, My Week With Marilyn, Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Slayer, The Devil’s Double, Captain America, Tamara Drewe, An Education, The Duchess, Mamma Mia!, The Escapist, The History Boys, Starter For 10

One thought on “THE LADY IN THE VAN

  1. This is a film 45 years in the making. It begins with Alan Bennett (writer, performer, Official British Living Treasure) moving to Camden (buying a house for £13,500) (it was a long time ago) only to find that there’s a homeless woman living in a van on the street, who perambulates about spending a few months outside one house before moving on. But, faced with double yellow lines, she and her yellow van take up residence on Bennett’s drive, and remain there for fifteen years. Bennett wrote a memoir (1989), a play (1999), and now this film. This may not be the most promising material, but unpromising material is something Bennett thrives on, and it may be that this latest incarnation of the story is the most successful.

    Bennett’s public image is at odds with what he actually writes. There is no such thing as a typical Bennett script. His work is accessible but it’s not just nostalgic anti-modern dismay. THE LADY IN THE VAN encompasses, amongst other things, ageing, loneliness, sexuality, repression, the ruthless detachment of the writer, snobbery, class, social services, religious hypocrisy, guilt, homelessness, death, personal hygiene, blackmail, and a typically English impotent attitude to others, and does so in the structure of a witty but down to earth comedy drama which is just experimental enough not to seem so.

    The film’s greater glory lies in the acting and dialogue. Maggie Smith gives surely her best performance since THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARN (1987). Although waspish, as most Smith characters are, she actually gets to do a lot more than just spit out stinging rebukes. There are some great actors who, despite being in demand, tend to be typecast by unimaginative producers (Alan Bates forever playing intellectual drunks is one example). Smith has been in this category for too long (bitchy semi-posh women), but returning to Miss Shepherd (she was in the play) gives her free reign to remind us how versatile she is without resorting to ‘Acting’. She eschews her usual tricks and becomes the character.

    Despite Smith’s brilliance, the revelation is Alex Jennings. His screen career has been underwhelming due in part to his sterling theatre work (he’s played Hamlet, Willy Wonka, George W Bush and Mikhail Bulgakov and was particularly good as the ultimate fop in The Relapse, a faux-Restoration comedy). When actors (usually Michael Sheen) play real people they usually tell us that they weren’t doing an impersonation, they were playing the character in the script. Jennings does both. He transforms himself utterly into the Bennett archetype but also reminds us that he’s more than just a much imitated human Eeyore. The device of separating him into Living Bennett and Writing Bennett (which predates ADAPTATION as it’s in the play) is done unflashily and almost apologetically.

    Also turning up are a bunch of the usual suspects giving nicely judged, mostly unexceptional performances: Roger Allam as the (literally) typical man in the street, Frances de la Tour as Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer’s widow), David Calder (a man with a secret), and Marion Bailey (particularly good as an unhelpful authority figure). But I have a problem with the decision to give cameos to most of the original cast from the previous Bennett-Hytner collaboration The History Boys. It’s a nice touch if you like that sort of thing, but it becomes distracting (particularly if you’re thinking ‘I know that face but I can’t place him’) and it does nothing to help the film, particularly as you get the feeling they’re all staring out of the screen at you with self-congratulatory ‘haven’t we done well?’ expressions. Yes, Hytner put together a decent cast of young actors who’ve mostly gone on to do decent work but there’s no need to boast about it. However, it might be less of a problem on a second viewing. There is a problem though that will only grow on subsequent viewings. It’s a strange misjudgement: Jim Broadbent’s turn as a corrupt copper would look over the top in Rentaghost. He’s astonishingly bad. It’s a (thankfully) small role, but it’s hugely important in that it’s meant to give context to Miss Shepherd’s plight. But Broadbent is so ridiculous you wonder why even someone as timid as Bennett doesn’t just slap him round the head and tell him to be off. Oh, and a telling off also to composer George Fenton for ripping off / hommaging a Shostakovich waltz on the soundtrack (though it does fit quite nicely).

    It would be easy to dismiss this as being a stereotypical twee tea-drinking Alan Bennett tea-cosy non-drama but that would be inaccurate and lazy and would ignore the darker undercurrents that haunt the film: Bennett’s casual pickups (who Miss Shepherd believes are Communists), Miss Shepherd’s lavatorial habits and Bennett’s inability to deal with them, and indeed Britain’s inability to know how to deal with its ageing population: the film highlights Bennett’s impotence in watching (or rather not watching) his ailing mother’s last days even as he has no choice but to put up with the vagrant in the yard.

    THE LADY IN THE VAN is the best sort of English whimsy: seemingly inconsequential it actually manages to quietly say a great deal without shouting about it. Aside from a few tics (basically the cameos and maybe the thing that happens at the end) this is a beautifully made, well-observed (obviously), quietly moving compassionate film, and a timely reminder that every homeless person is, well, a person, regardless of troughs they may have fallen into. But it does so without hectoring.

    We see Bennett frequently arguing with himself about life vs art (the alter ego wishing the original would do more stuff worth writing about) and we’ll (quite rightly) never know to what extent he embroidered the story (as he himself points out following the social worker confrontation), but the film feels truthful (even with ultimately three Alan Bennetts and a panto Jim Broadbent) without being anything as melodramatic and self-regarding as ‘a true story’.

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