It's not often that you get two national treasures, a lot of laughs and a genuine social debate in one film. The Lady in the Van stars Dame Maggie Smith as a homeless woman who installs herself and her van uninvited in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett.
The Lady in the Van does what all good comedy should do: make us laugh at ourselves but ultimately question our own motivations. It's based on real events - the real lady stayed for 15 years. Despite Bennett's very English humour, you are left asking, "What would I do?"
From Lady Violet to Lady in a Van
As she has aged, Dame Maggie Smith has been cast more and more in aristocratic roles such as Lady Violet in Downton Abbey. In The Lady in the Van, she veers to the other end of the social scale. Smith's character is wonderfully cantankerous and without any redeeming features to endear her to Bennett's middle-class neighbours who bring Miss Shepherd Christmas presents and expect their good deeds to be met with gratitude.
Bennett (The Madness of King George, Talking Heads) has made at least half of his career out of autobiographical stories. He first wrote about Miss Shepherd in an article after she died in 1989. He then wrote a book and a successful play (starring Maggie Smith) before the film adaptation. He says he originally helped the old lady more out of selfishness than philanthropy: she had parked her van in the street in front of the window where Bennett had his desk and it was distracting him from writing. By inviting her to park in the drive, he removed her from his line of vision. Of course, many people would simply have called the police, or tried to make her life a misery to encourage her to move on. But Bennett doesn't give himself the benefit of the doubt. In the film, his ambivalence is represented by a double character: Alan Bennett the writer and Alan Bennett the man, both played by Alex Jennings.
Bennett the character (and no doubt the man) is painfully aware of his own inconsistencies and moral shortcomings. He feels guilt about "using" Miss Shepherd as material, and also for helping this elderly woman while he has put his own mother in a retirement home.
As an audience, we laugh with Bennett, and even occasionally at him. The Lady in the Van is truly entertaining. But it's hard not to leave the cinema wondering how you would react in the same situation.
The Lady in the Van is one of the free screenings at the Dinard British Film Festival, on 27 September.