The Lady in the Van Written by Alan Bennett
The Lady in the Van is “a mostly true story” about the time Alan Bennett allowed a transient woman to park her van on his drive for three months, which became fifteen years. The woman, Margaret “Mary Shepherd” Fairchild is portrayed by Maggie Smith, but it’s Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett that’s the real treat of the acting. Upon initially viewing the trailers, I actually thought it was Bennett himself, known to be an actor. Both Jennings and Smith reprise their roles from the stage-play source material, and their casting is what makes The Lady in the Van twice as enjoyable as it could have been.
Smith is good at what she does, and I can only assume it was her casting that filled my local cinema’s auditorium with the elderly, who laughed along with it throughout. But they were right to do so. The Lady in the Van is the best kind of comedy – incidental. The gags may be funny, but are included in the film in their own right, not just for the sake of comedy.
Which is strange, since the British Board of Film Classification considers it a drama. Or perhaps that’s just the genre the distributors, TriStar Pictures, Inc., submitted. Either way, there is drama here, but with enough laugh-out-loud moments to feel believable. Though something tells me that the comedy was only effective because of the acting being of such a high standard that one felt comfortable with loosening-up whenever something less than serious happened.
Nevertheless, The Lady in the Van is a film which stayed with me for some time, and has already made its way into my top ten, and definitely number one for the year. Jennings’ Bennett alone builds the kind of world that made me want to quickly return home for some tea and battenburg. Indeed, there was light rain on my bus ride back in the dark, and I was eager to slip into my pajamas, make myself a cocoa and catch-up on “my programmes” – a phrase choice that makes me sound old, but in the way that The Lady in the Van makes seem okay. Ordinarily, I’d recommend The Lady in the Van to everyone, but the majority of my readers are in the United States, where it hasn’t been released.
And if it is, I suspect it’ll only be limited. But that’s unimportant in the long term – The Lady in the Van has constructed a world so pleasant-yet-also-dramatic that it really makes you appreciate the little things in life. The street is gentler than the city, so to speak. And all of it told through the eyes of Bennett – who is not a beloved British playwright without reason. From anyone else, this story might have been done a great injustice of being undersold, but with his words, and his observations, it’s subtly motivational and delicate without reaching the heights of your typical Spielberg fairytale.
Especially the way its status as “mostly true” is exploited to comment on the writing process itself. Bennett lives with a second version of himself – there’s the writer Bennett and the liver Bennett. The writer comments on what’s happening and gets-on with adapting it as it happens, and the liver experiences the story in an interchanging past/present. The two of them engage and argue over the way certain events happened, and it’s acknowledged that liberties are being taken with the truth to make the story more appealing.
Indeed, the ending in particular is a great manipulation of the storytelling medium, as the Bennetts realise that anything can done with their adapting of the story to give it a powerful epilogue that was never possibly initially. And then, we leave the film as Fairchild’s blue plaque is unveiled on Bennett’s house – his real house, used for the reenacting of the story. The real Bennett is there, and the story completes itself by arriving at its own adaptation. The same model van in the same driveway.
Everything comes round and into itself. And as we learn Fairchild’s story, we come to understand how one thing can lead to another and the way one thing can open an entire story for two people that can last a lifetime, and how it, too, has left me with a much wider horizon than I ever thought possible. One woman, living in a van, on someone’s driveway, for fifteen years. That alone takes a million coincidences for the stars to align and make happen.
But the owner of the house happened to be a writer. And he happened to write about it.