In light of tragic recent events in the real world, I took a much needed family trip to the cinema this weekend for some escapism. The Lady In The Van was exactly what we all needed. This is British film at its best.
The incredible true story of Miss Shepherd (actually Margaret Fairchild), who arrived with her van on Gloucester Crescent in 1974, eventually parking opposite the home of English writer and actor Alan Bennett, began life as a memoir, charting the almost unbelievable tale of how Mr. Bennett permitted her to park on his drive (chiefly to keep her off the street and out of his eyeline!) for a few months, only for her to stay for 15 years! The story went on to become a play in London’s West End in 1999 starring Maggie Smith and now 16 years later one of Britain’s most beloved and talented actresses has returned to the role for this film.
Known and loved by so many generations, whether for Hook and Sister Act, Harry Potter or Downton Abbey, Dame Maggie Smith is unsurprisingly wonderful in Nicholas Hytner’s film. She makes Miss Shepherd both someone you find rude and annoying, while also making her someone you can’t help but have an affection for. She sparkles throughout, whether it’s while daubing yellow paint everywhere, chasing off noisy, musical children or generally driving Alan up the wall, you can see how much fun she is having. However, there is a deeper aspect to this story, as we gradually learn about her past and there are plenty of moments which don’t fail to move you. A scene with Miss Shepherd at a piano, tentatively playing Chopin (Piano Concerto No.1 Romance (Larghetto)) is incredibly moving.
Reprising the role of Alan Bennett is the brilliant Alex Jennings, who stepped in to the writer’s shoes on stage for the 2012 productions of Hymn and Cocktail Sticks and it was lovely to see him back in this role. He captures Bennett beautifully, in manner, voice and humour and his relationship with Miss Shepherd is a lovely one to watch open out over the years.
No stranger to the writer, Nicholas Hytner was the perfect choice of director, having worked with Bennett a number of times during his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre. He is able to bring both the humour and the sadness of the story to the screen and has gathered together a British (and indeed National Theatre alumni) cast, with cameos from History Boys James Cordon, Dominic Cooper, Frances De La Tour and Geoffrey Streatfeild, as well as lovely smaller roles for superb talent such as Deborah Findlay and Roger Allam. It really is British film at its finest.
The other perfect component of the film is the location itself. Without the use of the original house and street, the making of this film would I imagine have been unthinkable. So much of the spirit of the story is bound up in that place. It adds to the beauty of the film, knowing that you are seeing the location where it actually happened. I’m adding going to see it for myself to my list of London things to do (plus I’m curious to know if the blue plaque really is there in real life!).
The Lady In The Van is the perfect tonic for today’s world. For a couple of hours you can escape in to the world of Gloucester Crescent in the 70s and 80s and a time when people actually allowed someone like Miss Shepherd to encroach on their lives. I’d love to think this could still happen today, but when many of us don’t even know our neighbours, I’m not so sure.
So, if you are looking for a film that will make you laugh, shed a tear and remember the capacity we have for kindness towards each other, then book your tickets now. You will be very glad that you did.
The Lady In The Van is on general release at UK cinemas now. For those interested, here’s a link to the trailer.