20 November 2015 | davidgee
Dame Maggie as another cranky old bird
At the bottom of the poster it says: 'This is a mostly true story.' Nicholas Hytner directs a 'revisionist' take on Miss Shepherd, the tramp-like old biddy who parked her van in Alan Bennett's front drive for a few weeks that turned into 15 years. The movie version fleshes out her story with glimpses of her past (a convent, a piano recital, a family feud, a fatal accident) which the narrator (one of the two Alan Bennetts played by Alex Jennings) tells us he only found out after she died.
A woman in front of me whispered to her companion, who wondered why Alan Bennett had a twin, that he actually had a split personality. That's not a bad explanation for the device of the householder Alan who puts up with Miss Shepherd (and clears her mess from his drive) and the writer Alan who doesn't think there's a story in this. I'm not sure that the double-act is entirely effective or necessary: a voice-over from the real Alan would have worked just as well, wouldn't it?
Despite the attempts to give the Lady a life before the Van, the screenplay is more revealing about the playwright, the reluctant Samaritan who is also having to deal with his northern mother's journey down the road to dementia. There are even a few references to the fact that Mr Bennett's sexuality was being questioned for many years before he finally outed himself.
The movie has more pace than the book and the play did. Maggie Smith is of course simply magnificent, fully absorbed into the grimy skin of this unlovable old harridan. Her performance is pitched midway between the Duchess of Downton and Muriel from the Marigold Hotel, although the character preposterously blends Hyacinth Bucket with Victor Meldrew. The 'History Boys', who largely owe their careers to Mr Bennett, pop up in a series of cameos, along with Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell-Moore from the same play. Jim Broadbent's scrounger is the least convincing presence and is perhaps mostly untrue.
This looks like being another highly competitive year for Oscars and BAFTAs, but Dame Maggie is certain to be a contender and could well be a winner. THE LADY IN THE VAN is not pitch-perfect in the way that THE HISTORY BOYS was (and the first - best - MARIGOLD HOTEL), but it is another master-class exemplar of British writing, acting and film- making.