When the opening titles role on Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, up pops a rather intriguing disclaimer: “Based on mostly true events.” That the famously dour playwright hosted an eccentric old woman and her VW camper van is, of course, well known.
What might be less well known is that the lady in question, the irascible Miss Shepherd, had, once upon a time, been involved in a road traffic accident that had claimed the life of a young motorcyclist.
Although innocent of any wrongdoing, the lady had panicked and fled the scene of the incident. Subsequently she had been haunted by a shadowy ex-Scotland Yard detective intent on exploiting her guilt.
It’s difficult not to speculate that this rather unlikely blackmail sub-plot is the part of the film that may well not be covered by the ‘mostly true’ disclaimer. So, does it matter? Well yes and no.
The problem with The Lady in the Van is that there is hardly anything in the way of plot: Miss Shepherd parks herself in Bennett’s Camden driveway and really that’s all there is to it. Thus the need for murky sub-plot.
In terms of relationships this film does not have anywhere to go. For Mr Bennett and Miss Shepherd, despite being ‘neighbours’ for fifteen years, never develop any sort of relationship other than that of long-suffering property owner and eccentric tenant. They finish as they start: distant.
Alan Bennett the fictional creation remains just as indifferent to Miss Shepherd, as did the real Alan Bennett. Likewise, the fictional Miss Shepherd remains just as inscrutable to the playwright on the big screen as she appears to have been in real life.
Dramatically speaking this rather static dynamic creates its own problems. Once this admittedly curious situation is established – ‘the mostly true’ bit - this film starts to seriously wobble.
As you watch a plethora of questions arise: Did Bennett ever invite Miss Shepherd into his commodious Camden abode? Did he ever consider doing so? How did Miss Shepherd survive financially? What about winter? Was Mr Bennett content to watch an old lady freeze in his driveway?
Intriguing questions no doubt, but all rather lost in this film.
Now I know saying nice things about Maggie Smith is de rigeur in these times, but I found her Miss Shepherd a little too over-played, a little too eccentric, all of which could have been forgiven if I could have actually heard what she was saying!
OK so her character is an old lady, but that’s no reason to make her an incoherent old lady. Little wonder my own neighbours were giving me black looks the morning after I had watched this film – so desperate had I been to hear Ms. Smith, for virtually the film’s entirety I had racked up the volume on my telly to ‘Full.’
Throw in little more than cameo roles for the likes of Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and friends, thinner than thin sub-plots involving aged mothers and long lost brothers and what you end up with is a curiously unsatisfying brew.
Perhaps it’s just the absence of Bill Nighy that seems odd. A Brit-film without Nighy is, let’s face it, well it’s like toast without marmalade, old son.
Having said all that The Lady in the Van is not without some charm. Alex Jennings shines like a beacon in the double role of playwright and alter ego. Indeed the clash between Bennett the idealist and Bennett the pragmatist is one of the film’s more successful strands. Camden looks very desirable too.
In the final analysis what must have seemed like a very promising premise for a drama, actually turns out to be if anything a little flat, meandering, aimless.
For all its reassuring quirkiness The Lady in The Van is ultimately a triumph of style over substance. Watchable, but though it pains me to say it, little more than that.