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The Lady In The Van: London Film Festival Movie Review

The fourth incarnation of Alan Bennet's The Lady in the Van is funny, touching and contains a terrific central performance from Maggie Smith. The movie recently screened at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.

The double Oscar winning legend played the titular god fearing character in Bennet's stage adaptation 15 years ago and in a radio version in 2009.

Indeed the story, which is based on real events, was first published as a diary in 1989 in the London Review of Books, the same year Smith's character passed away.

The story centres on writer Bennet, played by Alex Jennings, who moves in to an upmarket leafy suburb of Camden Town.

However along with the predictable mix of liberal creatives and opera loving toffs, the street's most infamous resident is an eccentric elderly woman Mary Shepherd, who lives in a battered old van and claims to be a former nun and World War 2 ambulance driver.

Miss Shepherd is rude, objectionable and has a complete disregard for personal hygiene - leaving her multi layered scent where ever she goes.

And the reason why the residents don't have her removed from the street - well under the pretence of being nice charitable people - it gives them all something to talk about.

However playwright Bennett is about the only resident who doesn't find Miss Shepherd’s presence amusing.

The writer struggles to get concentrate on his work while the old lady's presence provokes loutish hooligans and angry neighbours.

So in 1974, Bennett does the unthinkable and invites Smith's dysfunctional character to park her van in his driveway, to get her off the street and out of the public glare, for a few months - except she stays there for 15 years.

And if the story wasn't funny enough, the fact that it's true and happened to one of Britain's most enduring and loved comic writers makes it even more hilarious.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who helmed two other Bennett screenplays, The Madness of King George and The History Boys, the film is consistently funny and is littered with moments of generosity and emotion without ever losing its light hearted spirit.

Actor Jennings (The Queen) is uncanny as both sides of Bennett - the studious writer and the well meaning and slightly timid man - both of which argue with each other through out the movie.

Possibly the most interesting dynamic in the film, aside from the mysterious character of Shepard, is Bennett's relationship with his own mother.

While the writer takes in an dysfunctional vagrant off the street, he continually spurns the lonely advances of his own widow mother - who is also elderly and clearly wants to live with her son.

Bennett, who is from the working class city of Leeds in the North of England, does not want to expose his mother to his lifestyle in London, which involves his tentative steps to becoming openly gay.

The film contains many classic witticisms from the writer including an interview with an US reporter who asks what his first play was about, to which he responds that it was about "public school" or what Americans call "private school".

The reporter then says "but you didn't go to public school" with Bennett responding "yes, but I read about it".

Reporter: "And your second play was about sex".

Bennett: "Yes, I read about that too".

But it is Shepherd who is the star of the show. Smith revels in the role of a homeless woman with a serious attitude problem.

The character is ungrateful, defensive and only seems to derive joy from painting her van a bright shade of yellow. It's fairly astonishing that Bennett helped look after he for so many years – although the guilt from neglecting his mother is a large part of it, something which is touched on in the final third of the film.

As Shepherd's life draws to a close, Bennett discovers more about her amazing past – that she studied music in Paris (she had already displayed an ability to speak fluent French) and played the piano at the London proms.

And she was indeed a nun, twice over, but was thrown out of the church for being disobedient.

The team behind the film, especially filmmaker Hytner, did an incredible job of making the picture feel authentic and have the residents of Bennett's street Gloucester Crescent to thank. The production was filmed exactly where the events took place and in Alan's house, which he still owns.

The film will surely be mentioned come Oscar time, and Smith looks set to grab yet another Best Actress nomination.

Four stars out of five.

Here is the trailer:

Image: Sony