Maggie Smith stars in this funny investigation into the nature of caring.Turning theater into movies remains a tough and thankless job. Director Nicholas Hytner began hoeing that row 20 years ago, by adapting Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III into something like a costume thriller with horror-movie moments. (He also turned Bennett’s The History Boys into a doting melodrama). And now he’s back with another complex Bennett play, a psychological study of selfishness called The Lady in the Van, this time employing cinematic overkill akin to farce.
Bennett’s story, which is “mostly true,” is a funny investigation into the nature of “care,” a word that Bennett (Alex Jennings), author and main character, claims to hate, even if the rest of the world thinks he’s a saint for letting Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) park her odiferous van in his Camden driveway for 15 years. The lady in this case is not much of one, and for all the kindnesses rained down on her by Bennett’s upper-middle-class neighbors, she offers only disregard and incoherent phrases in return. Of course, as the film develops, we begin to sense more and more backstory will come, and when it does, it’s not only full of ironies but also smeared liberally with deep regrets and Catholic guilt. There’s a lot of poop, too.
A lesser movie might have settled for the mysteries of the past, but Bennett is also interested in his own motives as much as those of other folks living in the communities where he resides — mainly his neighborhood and the theater world. Bennett was also wise enough to leave everything in a self-indicting semi-resolution. The film suggests that there’s enough madness and guilt in the everyday world to spread around equally, and craziness might be funny as well as alarming. Hallucinations crisscross this story — alter egos, divine presences, and the like, lifting what is being sold as another geriatric tragicomedy into an art film based on a play based on a real pain-in-the-ass event, and all of it turned into quirky meditations.