Based on the memoir of Alan Bennett (and written by him) The Lady in the Van is a quiet gem of a film that tugs at your heartstrings.
The action begins in the countryside with a black screen as we hear a squeal of brakes and a loud thump as a window screen suddenly shatters across the screen and we are brought with a bump into the action. A young woman in a van speeds away from a solitary police car through down country lanes post-crash, blood smeared across the cracked window screen. After a short credit sequence we are brought into the “present” of the film in 1970s, and Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) has just bought a house in a fancy area of North London when he finds out about the lady who roams the streets in a dilapidated old van, pitching up wherever she feels like it.
That lady is Miss Shepard (Maggie Smith), only ever addressed as such, who lives in the back of a van that has seen better times, dressed in an improbable amount of layers in every season. The residents of the street treat her like an amusing oddity, annoyed when she decides to move outside their house and desperately wishing she would leave, but much to polite and British to say so.
Alan, after a fashion, decides to let her park on his drive for a few months, which inevitably end up being fifteen years. Their relationship is never friendly exactly, more like a marriage of inconvenience, but nevertheless it lasts.
Maggie Smith is excellent as Miss Shepard, the perfect mix of vulnerability hidden deep down by several layers of stubbornness, prickly attitudes and some unpleasant toilet habits. Alex Jennings too, as both Alan Bennett (in the moment) and Alan Bennett (the writer) who continually snipe at each other over the success or failure of their writing. The rest of the cast are essentially a who’s who of British actors: Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent and the entire cast of 2006’s The History Boys, the previous film by Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner.
It’s good film for a Sunday afternoon, sweet and sad, something that different generations will enjoy, and just enough meta weirdness to be interesting.