Alan Bennett is part of that small group of writers that are so distinctive that most film fans could probably do a fairly accurate impression of their style, delivered in their voice. Only Woody Allen and maybe Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino match his instant recognition. Hear a soothing Yorkshire accent talking of the peculiarities of small town life, possibly voiced through an elderly woman and Alan Bennett is instantly brought to mind. Although this reputation is partly unfair (after all, The History Boys is very different from, say, The Madness of King George III), The Lady in the Van does nothing to dispel it. The trueish story of a woman who lived in Bennett’s driveway for a decade and a half, it is Bennett at his most Bennettian (Bennettesque?). He has gone, to use a modern phrase he almost certainly would not use, full Bennett.
As such, how much you like Lady in the Van will be entirely based on how much you like Bennett’s signature style, how much you enjoy very British comedies of manners based around often unintentionally funny elderly women studied with warmth. Sure, it is a film based around two stellar performances, but even one of them is great exactly because Alex Jennings completely disappears into the character of Alan Bennett, to the extent that you forget for long stretches that you are not actually watching the man himself. I love the Bennettian style, so this film was a delight, but there is not much here for that small group of people in the UK who do not think Bennett is a national treasure or people across the world immune to a certain kind of British homespun weighty whimsy.
Part of the reason for this is the director, Nicholas Hytner. Although a master theatre director almost singlehandedly responsible for the rebirth of the National Theatre, this means his films tend towards the stagey. Despite the occasional visual choice that would be impossible on stage, such as neat work with Jennings as two separate Bennetts, clearly film work does not come as naturally to him as the stage. His method is mostly to let Jennings and Maggie Smith work their magic with as little camera fuss as possible, a technique that works, much as it does in Bennett’s Talking Heads series, because the performances are so strong that you just do not want any distractions from them.
One flaw this film does have, however, we must presumably blame on Hytner and Bennett equally. All of the actors who played the History Boys in the Hytner/Bennett film appear in the film in bit-parts, as well as their teacher Stephen Campbell Moore. As fun as it is to see James Corden, Russell Tovey and co pop up nearly a decade after that play and film made them stars, this comes at the expense of giving their previous co-star Frances De La Tour anything to do. Despite billed in a supporting role, she is never asked to do anything more than wear a floaty scarf, say ‘darling’ and do something minorly bohemian every twenty minutes or so. Obviously, she is one of the best in the business of doing this, but it is a huge waste of potential, especially when Bennett, Hytner and De La Tour have such great history together.
This qualm aside, this is a wonderfully enjoyable piece in the Philomena vein, featuring some great work from its two leads and a characteristically great script from Bennett. As awards season lurches ever closer and films begin to treat themselves ever more seriously, The Lady in Van is a welcome tea break.