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 you can just feel the final act's warm tears and tricked-up life lessons.
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. In 1974, Bennett (Alex Jennings) invited Miss Shepherd (Smith), a homeless woman of considerable truculence, to park the van she slept in on his Camden Town garden. She lived there for fifteen years, until her death. 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 this adaptation is excellent and inventive in its investigation of the impulses that led Bennett to put up with her for so long. The most interesting drama, though, is in Bennett's split self, presented here with a doubling. Jennings plays as separate personae Bennett the person and Bennett the writer, who prods himself over his intentions -- he's going to write about her, isn't he? Is that an act of theft, the opposite of the kindness he won't admit to?