The Lady in the Van full movie review - I would never have imagined her story
Living near Alan Bennett, as my wife and I did for some years, we naturally often saw the lady in the van. That was in the days before she moved into Alan Bennett's driveway, and when she was still in the road.
Camden Town in those days was very slowly emerging from being a seriously run-down area, and Gloucester Crescent was the forerunner of its hoped-for gentrification. We had numerous friends there, such as Colin Haycraft the publisher. I met Jonathan Miller in the spring of 1967 and he and I became very friendly, so that over the five years following I would sometimes visit him at his house in Gloucester Crescent. One time a man with a mop of blonde hair came running across the street from his own house to ask Jonathan somewhat pathetically for something such as milk or sugar, and it was Alan Bennett. That was the first time I met him. It seemed clear that Alan was somehow psychologically dependent upon Jonathan, if only for safety and reassurance. They could both look out of their large front windows and see each other's houses. (Curious, isn't it, that Jonathan is not mentioned in the film. And surely one of them bought the house opposite the other one on purpose.) Alan Bennett is definitely one of the world's greatest softies. Since he met Rupert he at last found happiness, which he infinitely deserves. The story of the lady in the van is not one I could ever have imagined. I always avoided her because of her dishevelled appearance and her cantankerous manner. She did not have the subliminal charm of Maggie Smith, I fear. I believe she tried several times to sell me pencils. I don't recall her writing on the pavement. I did not like the look of the shabby van in the road, or her bags. Were they really plastic bags then? When did paper bags end and plastic bags begin? The idea that the woman was a tragic case of a concert pianist turned nun who had been driven half-mad by Life was a revelation to me when Bennett first published the story. I recall her ranting about religion at me in the street, but Catholicism not being one of my favourite subjects, it only made me scuttle past her more hurriedly. I never knew that the widow of Vaughan-Williams lived in the street, and no one ever mentioned her to us. She is certainly brilliantly played in the film by the ever-insouciant Frances de la Tour. How interesting it would have been to meet her and talk about her husband's music. Deborah Findlay and Roger Allam are marvellous as 'Pauline and Rufus'. I have no idea who they were in real life. They may be fictional people. Claire Foy was particularly funny and delightful as the social worker. The film is thus populated by many excellent character actors, all creating just the right atmosphere, which is slightly fay, like Alan himself. But then, of course, he wrote it. There were many mixed feelings amongst the very tight crowd that lived in the Crescent then about the lady in the van, and I can imagine that many still there today were annoyed by the book and the film, and the filming taking place in the Crescent as well. I suspect there may have been a great deal of refusal to cooperate, and numerous objections to the whole thing. Some of the people in the Crescent have always had a tendency to think of themselves as very superior folk, who are not amused by anything or anyone who is too real. And smelly old ladies who live in vans are far too real for them, as are hopelessly sentimental people like Alan Bennett who cannot help being nice to people of all kinds, shy and retiring as he may be. At least Alan Bennett does not collect lots of stray cats like Celia Hammond. Think what might have happened to the Crescent if he had! I can hear the mutterings at the dinner parties now. But turning to the main issue, which is the film, I must say that it is positively a masterpiece. Not only a masterpiece of art but a masterpiece of humanity and compassionate insight. Nick Hytner has outdone himself this time. Let's hope that since leaving the National he will do many more wonderful films, as there was a nine year gap prior to this one. As for Alan Bennett, he goes from strength to strength like a wave that traverses an ocean without ever losing its force or size. One day he will reach a faraway beach, and then he will meet again the lady in the van, after a proper Ascension, of course. As for Maggie Smith, there are no words. The sheer genius of her portrayal of that sad, half-demented woman is one of the great cinematic performances of our time. But how many times have we all said that about Maggie Smith? She just goes on and on being sublime. And Alex Jennings has done such a sensitive and brilliant impersonation of Alan Bennett (or should I day both Alan Bennetts. as there are the two of him in the film), that it is like a miracle of nature. Well done, all. This film is truly an example of 'Best of British'. This film makes me so proud I am going to vote LEAVE.