Maggie Smith carries herself like a countess in this “mostly true story” about a homeless woman in London, while hinting at a deep well of remorse and shards of panic beneath her grand froideur. In a kind of literary bait and switch, however, The Lady in the Van isn’t really about the supercilious Miss Shepherd (Smith), but the fastidious, somewhat timid, and reclusive playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), the author of this screenplay, in whose driveway Miss Shepherd parked her van for more than 15 years.
Observing his initially unwelcome neighbor through his picture window, or addressing her in formal, borderline adversarial exchanges, which are usually confined to pragmatic questions like whether he will let her use his bathroom, Bennett learns only a handful of facts about Miss Shepherd. The film shows or tells its audience those nuggets repeatedly as Bennett muses in self-consciously “literary” prose about what she teaches him about life or whether he should turn her story into a book or a play. Meanwhile, its real subject, Bennett himself, neither says nor does anything particularly interesting.
“Writing is talking to oneself,” Bennett states, and the script illustrates that valid, if unoriginal, insight with literal-minded voiceovers from and arguments between Bennett the man of the world and Bennett the writer. The two often share the screen, the writer sitting at his desk by the window, either writing or critiquing what his alter ego does. The worldly Bennett doesn’t do much more than the writer, and what little he does is conveyed mainly through his narration or through brief snippets of his interactions with other people.
That combination of quippy voiceover with attenuated action keeps the audience at almost as great a distance from Bennett’s inner life as we are from Miss Shepherd’s. As a result, when something about his relationship with Miss Shepherd—presumably his quest to figure out how she became so disconnected and alone—makes him realize that there needs to be more to his life than just working, caring for his aging mother, sparring with his aging neighbor, and having one-night stands with a series of young men, Bennett’s change of direction is more comprehended than felt.
The other characters all talk in the same multisyllabic, often meta mode that Bennett favors in voiceover, like when one of this neighbors, talking about how aging gracefully is probably not in the cards for Miss Shepherd, says: “That’s what happens in plays. In life, going downhill is an uphill job.” Like the rest of this film, the line is annoyingly glib, a toothless generalization masquerading as a clever insight.