The movie they're selling isn't the movie this is. Sony Pictures Classics is peddling Nicholas Hytner's film of Alan Bennett's play and
Hollywood has always soothed us with the myth that the homeless actually know vital truths about living that the rest of us don't. Fortunately, The Lady in the Van is Bennett's picture, not Hollywood's, and it's an honest, incisive, and peppery examination of one of his life's strangest but most enduring relationships — and the way that timidity and kindness often work out to being the same thing.
In 1974, Bennett allowed the itinerant Miss Mary Shepherd to move the van in which she slept off his Camden Town street and onto his front garden. Stinking, truculent, and, above all, proud, Miss Shepherd had parked up and down his street for some months, often setting up in front of the study window where Bennett toiled on his plays. He was friendly to her but always careful not to touch her; the artists, writers, and other liberal sorts living nearby also helped her when they could, possibly — Bennett observes in the film — so that even isolated from London's poverty, they still felt as if they were doing their part.
Still, the scraps she got into with neighbors, bobbies, and marauding youths often interrupted his writing. Eventually, when authorities demanded she vacate the street, Bennett invited this woman the age of his mother onto his property, an offer that he believes she'd cannily set him up to make — and that she accepted only as if she were doing him a favor. She lived there for 15 years, painting her van canary-orange, stickering it in Union Jacks, watching a TV set connected to one of Bennett's outlets via an extension cord. Sometimes she used his bathroom; mostly she collected her waste in plastic bags she stashed under the van.
"If I write about this, people will say there's too much about shit," Bennett (Alex Jennings) says in the film. Because The Lady in the Van is honest about homelessness, it has to be honest about its most noxious signifier: It's hard to remember, as you live your life, that toilets are a luxury. Miss Shepherd spends much of her time in that van praying, to cleanse her soul, and much of her social interactions telling people that she's usually cleaner than she is at the moment — sometimes boasting that she once won an award for cleanliness. The neighbors might crack about her unpleasant smell when she's out of earshot, but up close, they allow
Bennett insists that putting up with her wasn't him being kind; it was him being too timid not to. The film has an awful scene of Miss Shepherd smiling
The split-persona scenes are better written than they are directed. You really have to pay attention to be sure which Bennett is which, at times, and Jennings, while compelling and brittlely funny, is no whiz at acting against himself. The film is theatrical in good ways and bad: In its daring, and in its smart willingness to employ direct address and nonnaturalistic technique in order to examine its own telling of this story, it's a vault forward for what we might think of as holiday prestige pictures. (Hytner was the director of England's National Theatre from 2003 until early 2015.) In group scenes, though, when the stage actors playing the neighbors
The Lady in the Van
Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, and Roger Allam. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Written by Alan Bennett. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday, January 22, at Living Room Theaters (FAU Main Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton; 561-549-2600; fau.livingroomtheaters.com). Opens Friday, January 29, at the Classic Gateway Theatre (1820 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-763-7994; thegatewaytheatre.com).