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 memoir The Lady in the Van like it's the usual twinkly Best Exotic time-with-our-elders holiday entertainment. There's Maggie Smith, dressed up as what my grandmother used to call a “bag lady,” wreaking gentle havoc on the life of a tweedy London playwright. From the trailers and the posters you can just feel the final act's warm tears and tricked-up life lessons.
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 and 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 she slept in off of 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 out where 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 the 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 only accepted 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 television 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. Since 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 more clean 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 her her dignity. The film makes clear, many times, that that dignity is just about the one thing she has left and that she'll always fight for it. She did so, on his property, for 15 years, right up until her death in 1989. (Hytner shot this in Bennett's actual house and street.)
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 goonily as she races down the street in a wheelchair, and it tilts into mannered flashbacks as Bennett discovers her past. But none of that is as bad as you might fear, and this adaptation is excellent and inventive in its investigation of the impulses that led Bennett to put up with her for so long. Bennett and Hytner draw an aching contrast between Miss Shepherd and Bennett's own mother: One lives in the garden, the other in a nursing home. The most interesting drama, though, is in Bennett's split self, presented here with a doubling of Jennings's performance. He plays both Bennett the person and Bennett the writer, who never leaves the study and prods Bennett the person about his intentions — he's going to write about her, isn't he? He's going to put her story on a West End stage, right? Is that in its way an act of theft, the opposite of the kindness he won't admit to?
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 non-naturalistic 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 gab over dinner about Bennett and Miss Shepherd, everyone is acting to the rafters — their faces are as comically exaggerated as in the illustrations commissioned for Dickens novels. (And let's politely forget about the from-another-film moments when a yob from her past threatens her for hush money.) Smith, who has played Miss Shepherd onstage, is mighty and raging, stubborn and frail, always true to the woman herself rather than our idea of what Smith should be on screen. Her Miss Shepherd dominates in her interactions out of fear that anyone might for a moment think that she isn't dominant already.