Maggie Smith brings Alan Bennett’s touching memoir to life

Describing itself as a “mostly true” story (more on that later), The Lady in the Van dramatizes the unlikely relationship between celebrated playwright/screenwriter Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George, The History Boys), played by Alex Jennings, and eccentric bag lady Ms. Sheperd (played by Maggie Smith, reprising her stage role), who lives in a van down the road from his Camden Town house. About to be driven out by parking regulations, Bennett takes pity and allows her to temporarily stay in his driveway; she ends up staying 15 years until her death.

Unsurprising for an adaptation by a celebrated writer, The Lady in the Van contains many narrative devices, particularly Bennett overcoming his lack of a verbal sparring partner (he lived alone) by dividing himself in two: Alan Bennett the person, who lives an everyday life; and Alan Bennett the writer, who never leaves his desk and frequently admonishes his mundane counterpart for being too timid and far less witty than on paper. After all, as he points out, all writing is essentially the author talking to himself.

This allows him to be up front about the “mostly true” bits, with Bennett the writer interjecting when scenes didn’t quite happen that way and Bennet the person protesting the words put in his mouth. The fourth wall is not so much broken as played hopscotch with. The real-life Alan Bennett even appears at the end to congratulate the actors and crew.

While at times cheesy – such as the scene where both Bennetts give the deceased Ms. Sheperd the send-off she wanted by writing in a scene where she ascends to heaven – for the most part, it’s deftly done. And ultimately, that’s the point: the story of the vagrant and the unwilling Samaritan may be heartwarming, but underneath it all it’s an exploration of creativity. Ms. Sheperd, herself not above embellishing her life story, makes Bennet realize that “you don’t put yourself into what your write, you find yourself there.”

Starts May 20, Filmcasino