Arts Review, Movies

Lady in the Van

Lady in the Van featured image

Lady in the Van

Nicholas Hytner, director

Alan Bennett, script based on his own play

Starring: Maggie Smith (Mary Shepherd/Margaret Fairchild), Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett), Roger Allam (Rufus), Deborah Findlay (Pauline), Frances de la Tour (Ursula Vaughan Williams)

In 1973, playwright and actor Alan Bennett allowed an eccentric elderly woman called Mary Shepherd to park her dilapidated van in his North London driveway for a night. 15 years later she left—to go to a long-term care facility, where she quickly passed away. Bennett was left to ponder what had happened and, inevitably, write about it.


The play “The Lady in the Van” was a hit on London’s West End in 1999, in a production directed by the brilliant theatre director Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon, The History Boys; One Man, Two Guvnors) and starring Maggie Smith. Somewhat belatedly, Hytner, Bennett and Smith have finally adapted the production to film, where it should do well with Zoomer audiences—though it’s doubtful that it will be as critically acclaimed as the play.

That’s because the essential humour of the play—the wonderfully odd interplay between a somewhat stuffy and absurdly well meaning youngish writer and a tough, foul mouthed (and foul smelling) old lady—works better live than on screen. There’s too much of a distance between the character of Bennett as played by Alex Jennings and that of the incomparable Maggie Smith. You don’t get the sense of the awkwardness of their situation and how amusing it is.

Instead, Bennett and Hytner opt for sentimentality, perhaps over emphasizing the somewhat glorious past of Smith’s odd Mary Shepherd. Bennett finds out that she was a prodigious talent as a young pianist, who studied under the esteemed Alfred Cortot and actually played at the Proms before her growing eccentricity derailed her career. Too much of the film is spent exploring her background; not enough takes place in situ.

Nonetheless, Maggie Smith is absolutely wonderful as Mary or as Bennett discovers, Margaret Fairchild. She dominates every scene she’s in and is refreshingly astringent in her approach to her character. This is one of the key roles in Smith’s career and it’s excellent that it’s been captured on screen. For the many admirers of Maggie Smith, Lady in the Van is a must-see and for those who appreciate British eccentricity and whimsy, there’s more than enough here for them to find pleasure in this slightly miscalculated film adaptation.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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