There’s really only one good reason to see The Lady in the Van, the new film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s hit 1999 play, and that’s Maggie Smith’s performance in the title role. Smith is one of those actresses at whom the dubious term “legend” is flung so readily that it’s become all too easy to take her for granted. More worryingly, the term also serves to obscure her incredible, enduring, inventive artistry as a performer. Smith demonstrates that artistry at every level in this film , going beyond her excellent recent work in Quartet (2012) to deliver one of her all-time great screen performances.
Playing Miss Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who pitched up on Bennett’s Camden street, ended up moving into his driveway, and stayed there for some 15 years, Smith captures every shade of the character’s combined defensiveness and exhibitionism. Considering that she played the role on stage, and on radio, the freshness of Smith’s work here is little short of amazing. Nothing seems set or forced; rather, every gesture and inflection feels organic and spontaneous. As Smith plays the role, the van seems an extension of Miss Shepherd’s physical being. Splashing yellow paint over the vehicle, her Miss S. is clearly in her dotty element. Moreover, Smith goes beyond the individual character to create an iconic presence here: an exasperating, admirable, hilarious, and deeply moving portrait of eccentricity.
The Lady in the Van badly needs the richness and depth that Smith brings to it, because, in pretty much all other aspects, the film is a dud. The movie was directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the play in its original stage incarnation, and if ever there was a work that needed a director with more critical distance on the material then it’s this one. Hytner demonstrated his lack of judgement when it comes to Bennett’s writing as Artistic Director of the National Theatre when he staged the playwright’s awful play People in 2011, a drafty whinge about the National Trust (!) that, if submitted by a new writer, would doubtless have been dumped in the nearest bin.
Here, working from an adaptation by Bennett himself, Hytner shows the same kind of unseemly reverence for Bennett’s writing. The meta-apparatus of the play (including the device of having two Bennetts as characters interacting and expressing his conflicted attitude to Miss Shepherd) is accentuated here. A rare expressive image - such as Miss S. being raised into an ambulance - is spoiled by having Bennett (Alex Jennings) editorialising over it in voice-over, telling us what we’re being shown. Complete with pointless cameos from each of The History Boys actors, the end result is that the material seems even more smug, arch and masturbatory on screen than it did on stage.
As in his Untold Stories memoir, Bennett’s self-presentation in The Lady in the Van treads a somewhat sneaky line, with apparent self-deprecation barely concealing hefty self-regard. On the one hand, he’s constantly flagging up the fact that his involvement with Miss Shepherd was based around his desire to exploit her as a colourful character in his writing. (The theme of the piece is, ultimately, the use that writers make of other people and real experience in their literary work.) On the other hand, Bennett is really showing us just how much more caring his attitude to Miss S. was when compared to most of his would-be liberal neighbours: whether he’s cleaning up her stools or facing off with her social worker (Cecilia Noble). As often at his weakest, Bennett is subtly judgemental about everyone here, sometimes in the weirdest of ways.
Apart from Smith (and Gwen Taylor, who has a few effective moments as Bennett’s Mam), none of the cast really gets the opportunity to distinguish themselves. As the Camden neighbours, Frances de la Tour and Nicholas Burns drift in and out to little effect; while Deborah Findlay and Roger Allam keep popping up to contribute unfortunate remarks about Bennett’s writing - before we get to see a National Theatre audience whooping their approval at his latest play, just to confirm the playwright’s greatness, after all. There’s no doubt that Alex Jennings gives good Bennett(s), but his work here remains an impersonation, no more, no less.
Lacking the zest of Bennett’s screen-writing at its best (1984's A Private Function, say), The Lady in the Van gets worse as it goes along, in terms of both story-telling and style. The ending – featuring a horrendous "ascension", a Day for Night flourish, and – yup – a cameo from Bennett himself – is flagrantly embarrassing. Oddest of all, perhaps, is the strong suggestion that Bennett, now blissfully partnered, won’t need to access his "creative" side any more. Alongside Smith’s stunning performance, that’s pretty much the only good news that The Lady in the Van offers.