Adapted by Tony Award-winning British playwright Alan Bennett’s 1999 play of the same name, “The Lady in the Van” is a heartwarming film replete with dry wit and humor. The story is based on Bennett’s own arduous friendship with an eccentric homeless woman named Ms. Shepherd, played in the film by British screen legend Maggie Smith. Under the brilliant direction of Nicholas Hytner, this character-driven film lives up to its original source material.
The story begins as the fictional Bennett, played by three-time Olivier Award winner Alex Jennings, meets Shepherd, who had been living on Bennett’s driveway for more than 15 years in a series of decaying vans. As their friendship progresses, Bennett learns about Shepherd’s layered backstory as a gifted pianist whose misfortunes led her to her current situation.
The film is fueled by excellent performances by Smith and Jennings. Best known by American audiences as Violet Crawley in period drama Downton Abbey and as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter series, the two-time Academy Award winner Smith delivers a heartfelt performance as an irritable old lady. With sixty years of experience acting in film, television and stage, it is not unexpected that Smith’s performance is superb. Smith played the role of Shepherd in the stage production of “The Lady in the Van” at Queen’s Theatre in 1999. Her charisma is just as evident onscreen.
Jennings’ performance is equally skillful. In the 2004 radio adaptation, Alan Bennett played himself. Jennings was able capture the character’s voice and personality without directly emulating Bennett’s distinct mannerisms and quirky expressions. Not only does Jennings strike a resemblance to a middleaged Alan Bennett in the 1970’s, Jennings’ subtle performance as Bennett is impressive, even though it is overshadowed by Smith’s Miss Shepherd. The charisma between the two leads makes “The Lady in the Van” one of the most touching films in recent memory.
Under a different director, the film adaptation is still an enjoyable drama with plentiful comedic moments. The eccentric characters and the banter balance well with the emotional depth and dry wit that is sure to entertain audiences. Like the film’s two leads, Hytner is an experienced storyteller, and his masterful direction brings the best out Bennett’s screenplay and brilliant performances by Smith and Jennings.
Much like its subject matter, “The Lady in the Van” is an interesting film. Despite being potentially overlooked by American audiences and awards panels, The Lady in the Van captures how the unlikely friendship between two individuals can help their overcome their own shortcomings. “The Lady in the Van” is the epitome of how an interesting story coupled with great acting makes for a successful comedy.