I saw The Lady in The Van a little while ago. It’s willfully odd, gleefully eccentric and the most structurally interesting and complicated thing Alan Bennett’s ever done. I saw it on the recommendation in particular of one of the few critics I trust completely; My father, Ian Stuart. Writer, poet, ghost tour wrangler and the man who taught me everything I know about story, how it works and why.
And here he is, to talk to you about the movie too. So, it gives me immense pleasure to cede the floor to him on this one. Take it away, Dad.
The Lady in the Van – Bennett’s second film, is a dramatization of his early years in London as a writer and actor. An old tramp lady appears in Bennett’s street and he unwillingly adopts her, allowing her to park the van in his drive – it’s heart warming, a hymn to English eccentricity and compassion, and it’s gone down a bomb with Bennett’s core voters – the white haired grannies who love Rich Tea biscuits and still mourn Thora Hird.
The caption at the start of the film states “Mostly True” which asks the question “ Which bits are true, and which are made up? “ It questions the nature of storytelling with a whole range of narrative effects, quirky jokes and cinematic conjuring tricks.
There are two Alan Bennetts for a start – one who lives his life and another who writes about it – and they’re both played by Alex Jennings. He’s pitch perfect – the slight stoop, the apologetic blink, the flat Leeds accent – they’re all there. And he distinguishes the two AB’s superbly well – one cautious, uncertain, the other irritated, frustrated. So you get two views to every scene and a kind of Socratic dialogue which bounces from one to the other.
The film plays with reality in another way too. Virtually all the cast of History Boys appear here – Frances de La Tour, the history teacher in the previous movie, appears as the widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams while James Corden turns up as a market trader. You’re constantly reminded that this is only a film – you’ve seen all these people before in other roles. And here, you see some of them in more than one role at once. There is a scene in the theatre where Alex Jennings is playing Alan Bennett playing Alan Bennett in a play by Alan Bennett. Work that one out if you can.
And what about Bennett? Is he really the National Treasure people believe him to be? The film’s answer is an emphatic No – he’s just human, anda bit bewildered and awkwardly gay – the film is punctuated by young men pulling on leather jackets and walking out of the door. Two of whom are Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey, of History Boys. Mostly true, once again, but not completely. Never completely.
Bennett allows The Lady to park her van in his drive …yes…but she becomes a subject, something to write about…he uses her as much as she uses him. And what about Bennett’s old mum, dotty in a care home, and desperate for a visit from him which doesn’t happen?
I’ve deliberately left Maggie Smith till last. I’ve never seen screen acting like it – because it doesn’t look like acting – it looks real and three dimensional and is genuinely moving. She is querulous, bad tempered, funny and vulnerable by turns, and does this with nothing more than a look, a sniff, a shake of the head. It’s as moving a portrait of old age as you’ll find anywhere.
If you’re looking to have your heart warmed, you won’t be disappointed, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a film which takes on the complex contrariness of people and makes something hopeful out of it, without patronizing either the characters or the audience.
Now, I’m off to put the kettle on. Where did I put that packet of Rich Teas?
Oh and the Rich Teas are probably behind the fruit cake. Ah, the agony of choice…