4 stars
If a homeless woman moved into your driveway, what would you do?
That is the kernel of Alan Bennett’s conundrum, one that became a book, a play then a film. One that is awkward for any socially responsible individual who is drawn to the good side by her need, and sent screaming to the bad by her condition. For the lady in question was something of a challenge; morally, emotionally, physically and hygienically speaking. As it happens, Bennet gave her ‘temporary’ residence in her driveway, a relationship that lasted over fifteen years. What follows is a mostly true story.

Technically speaking, the destitute Miss Shepherd wasn’t actually homeless. Like an oversized gastropod, she brought a residence with her; a beat up old van whose unpleasant exterior hid an even more unpleasant interior. Before Bennett, Miss Shepherd (played with panache by stalwart Maggie Smith - My Old Lady) shared her favours across London’s Borough of Camden, a home for artists and yuppies who assuaged their guilt by letting her park on their street. Then the law changed and Bennett, an acclaimed writer, took her in. Up to a point.

Steadfastly refusing to let their relationship be grist for his writer’s mill, he generously waited until after her death before giving in to the inevitable. It’s neatly told as Bennett the writer and Bennett the person are both given screen-time, often squabbling with each other as he wrestles with his alter ego. “I never said that,” says the person to the writer who’d been supplied imagined dialogue, more than once. “I know,” he responds, quickly feeding him more made up lines..

There’s a delightful sense of quirky calm about The Lady In The Van that perfectly captures a time in place (London through the 70’s and 80’s), as well as nutting out the emotional dichotomy that underpins this story. Bennett effortlessly draws out a conversation about the way we treat our neighbours and ourselves without recourse to cliché or judgement. He’s too busy judging himself to worry about us.

Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys / The Madness of King George) has spent the last decade working on stage, and has clearly honed his skill with actors in that time. Yet another on-point performance by Smith anchors the film; one that’s not too far removed from what we love about her yet free from her now twitchy shtick of period drama (I’m looking at you Downton Abbey). Alex Jennings (The Queen) is finely cast as Bennett and Bennett, bringing a perfect balance of writer’s angst and cheeky, Northern spirit to his role. Together they’re a formidable presence.

Despite its buttoned down demeanour and challenging subject matter, The Lady In The Van is an exuberant film that has the capacity to make you think and cheer, laugh and recoil, maybe even cry a little. Everything you’d expect of Bennett, and want from Smith.


Previewed at Sony Theatre, Sydney, on 25 February 2016

Maggie Smith
Alex Jennings
Jim Broadbent

Nicholas Hytner

Alan Bennett




104 minutes

March 3, 2016
The Lady in the Van (2015) on IMDb
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