Based on Alan Bennett’s short story and play of the same name, The Lady in the Van
, an unassuming arthouse flick that opens areawide on Friday, tells the true story of one Mary Shepherd, an elderly woman who parked her van in Bennett’s driveway and lived out of it for 15 years. Given the fact that the people involved in making this film have a history with the short story, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film succeeds in bringing Bennett’s charming story to life.
No stranger to the role of Mary Shepherd, Smith previously portrayed her twice. She starred as Mary in the original 1999 theatrical production (and received a Best Actress nomination at the 2000 Olivier Awards) and in the 2009 BBC Radio 4 adaptation. The 82-year-old actress gives another flawless performance in the film. Director Nicholas Hytner has the right credentials too. He also directed the original stage production at the Queen's Theatre in London, making him the perfect choice to helm the thing.
The film commences as Mary, who’s just plowed into a cyclist while navigating a narrow country road, evades a police officer attempting to arrest her for a hit and run. This accident haunts Mary and she escapes to the city in the attempt to avoid arrest. She becomes destitute and starts to live out of van, parking it on a quiet Camden street much to the chagrin of the residents. One such resident, writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), a semi-closeted gay man who separates the writer in himself from the person who must go out and deal with the banalities of everyday life (leading to some funny scenes in which the two Alans appear and bicker with one another), takes pity on the poor woman and allows her to temporarily park in his driveway.
Over time, he develops a friendship with her and learns that she was a former classical pianist and had played Chopin in a promenade concert. She also once tried to become a nun, and she spent some time in a mental institution.
A bit of a curmudgeon, she doesn’t make for a good neighbor. She and her van reek of body odor. And she paints the thing a putrid yellow, so it becomes a real eyesore. She complains when neighbors make too much noise and asks them to keep it down, oblivious to her questionable status as a resident. Even Alan has difficulty tolerating her behavior. Given the fact that it’s based on a true story, it makes sense that the film’s ending breaks the fourth wall to show us the real life Alan Bennett and the crew behind the making of the movie. It’s a nice moment that provides a kind of closure on a tender story that keeps on giving.