Friday 4 December 2015

Parallel parking: "The Lady in the Van"

The Lady in the Van constitutes a very comfy, thoroughly British siege movie. You will perhaps already be aware of the set-up of Alan Bennett's original play, which has done the repertory rounds, at some point with Maggie Smith in the title role: this is what's billed as the "mostly true" story of how a homeless woman, one Mary Shepherd, installed herself and her vehicle in Bennett's Camden Town driveway in the mid-1970s, and stayed there - much like her host, a relic utterly resistant to all attempts at gentrification - over the next decade and a half, as another comparably wilful and fearsome lady installed herself just down the road at No. 10 Downing Street, and property prices shot through the roof.

The new film version - directed by blue-chip dottiness specialist Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) and adapted for the screen by Bennett himself - embraces everything that might be considered parochial about this tale. In the roles of Bennett's neighbours - whose responses to the old bird range from passive-aggressive acceptance to total NIMBYism - we get familiar TV sitcom faces; pretty much every last one of Bennett's History Boys shows up for a cameo; there are jokes about Broadstairs and Battenberg cake. Rather than going against the material's grain, Hytner makes a cosy proposition more so yet: the film starts out exactly as you'd expect - a mite Maggie, a bit of Bennett - and then gets Maggier and more Bennetty with every scene.

That's not necessarily a criticism; in fact, it's one of Lady's hidden strengths that the leads burrow under these characters' skins in the manner they do. (Lest that sound too visceral a metaphor: it's more that the actors break in these parts like a new pair of slippers.) Hytner is the first director in some time to arrange all Smith's crotchety huffs and puffs into something resembling a performance: she repays him - and us - by making this Mary visibly vulnerable, and more sincerely touching than anything Smith was allowed to attempt in those shoddily constructed Marigold Hotel films. Against her, Jennings gives a small masterclass in wry constipation: his Bennett is just too gentle to put his foot down in the way he really wants - and given Mary's tendency to leave her turds lying round his yard like crazy paving, perhaps that's for the best.

Somewhere down in the mix, as there has been throughout Bennett's best work, is a more autumnal portrait yet of the loneliness particular to a certain kind of English eccentric: Mary's total self-sufficiency - her singular personality, her blind indifference to how she looks or smells - inevitably brings her into conflict with the hypersensitive writer, arguing with another version of himself in a house that really does appear big enough for two. Below the feelgood toplayer - painted in broadly the same custard-yellow shade as Mary is seen "disguising" her means of shelter, right through to its perilously kitschy coda - you catch certain issues being allowed to slink away underaddressed, as they often do in English homes and gardens. (Last week's Radiator, with which Lady would make an adventurous double-bill, offers some redress.) 

Still, those same issues are there in some form, and that the film at least nods to their existence - as you might to a neighbour whose name you can't recall on your way in from work - elevates Hytner's film over the typical cottage industry product. At one point, Bennett accuses himself of being overly timid, only to immediately rationalise: "Yes, though this being England, timid is good, too." The Lady in the Van gets a little wedged behind the cushions in its second half, venturing a tenuous parallel between Bennett-Shepherd and any other parent-child, patient-carer relationship, yet such observations ensure it's forever aware of - and articulate in its phrasing of - its own limitations. Nothing more groundbreaking than another "well-made British film", then - but while it was parked in front of me, I was happy enough it was there.

The Lady in the Van is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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