Artists are inspired by any number of things. In the case of Alan Bennett, his play The Lady in the Van draws inspiration from his own life. Originally written as a play, The Lady in the Van comes to screens with a screenplay by Bennett, along with original stage star Maggie Smith in the role of Miss Shepherd. Not having seen the play, I can’t say what (if anything) changed in the transition to film. But in spite of a strong performance from Smith, The Lady in the Van as a film has some notable problems.
Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a playwright living in Camden Town when Miss Shepherd takes up residence on the street. Quite literally. Miss Shepherd owns a van in which she lives, and for a while, she takes up residence in the van, parked in front of different homes. When stripes are added to the road to keep parked cars off of it, though, Bennett reluctantly offers to let her park her van in his unused driveway for a few weeks. Shepherd ended up spending 15 years parked in Bennett’s driveway. Her decision to stay is in keeping with what Bennett knows of her, though. Shepherd doesn’t care that she’s homeless. She seems content to live in the various vans she acquires, which she tends to then paint yellow (with normal paint). It’s hinted that something darker exists in her past, though, with Shepherd making occasional stops to a Catholic church.
Smith, as she always does, commands the screen whenever she’s on it. Unfortunately, the way that the script plays out, it seems like Bennett is supposed to be the more important figure. To convey many of his scenes, though, Bennett regularly appears with himself at different points in the day. One Bennett lives out his life, while the other occasionally takes notes or offers thoughts on whatever the matter is on hand. Bennett also has a number of scenes with his own ailing mother, which the script treats as a parallel to Shepherd. While it’s not bad to show Bennett’s part in this symbiotic relationship, it doesn’t quite work here. Jennings does nail recreating Bennett, but he’s not strong enough to compete with Smith in their scenes together.
Conceptually, The Lady in the Van is interesting. In creating a working film, though, only Smith stands out as noteworthy. Bennett isn’t an engaging figure, and that becomes an issue as the film slowly moves on. Bennett’s issues extend into real life, too, with the script lacking anything substantial to make this story interesting beyond the concept. It’s a shame, too. Smith deserves a bit better.