The Lady in the Van

Film, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(10user reviews)
The Lady in the Van

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Maggie Smith is excellent in this cosy comic tale carved from writer Alan Bennett's own life

Imagine Maggie Smith’s cantankerous dowager in Downton Abbey’ as a bag lady – she's still lording it over everyone, but now she's dressed in a filthy too-big men’s coat with brown sticky tape patching up the rips and unsightly brown smears down the back.

Meet Miss Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who lived in a knackered campervan in playwright Alan Bennett’s front garden in north London for 15 years. Smith played Miss Shepherd in Bennett’s hit 1989 play and takes on the role again in this hugely entertaining, big-hearted and funny film adaptation directed by his long-standing collaborator Nicholas Hytner ('The History Boys'); it’s the movie equivalent of cosying with a warm buttery crumpet in front of a fire on a winter’s day.

The film was shot in the actual house on the street, Gloucester Crescent, in London's Camden Town where the real events took place. Alex Jennings plays Bennett, who buys his house in the late 1960s. His neighbours are writers and intellectuals – guilty liberals who put up with Miss Shepherd’s van parked outside their book-lined homes to prove how tolerant they are. When the local authorities threaten to move her on, Bennett offers Miss S the use of his front garden for a couple of weeks. She never leaves. His mum, visiting from Yorkshire, wonders what she does for a toilet. The answer involves ‘Stout carrier bags’, Bennett tells her (not stout enough we soon find out).

The film offers glimpses of Bennett’s private life – his crush on a cocky young actor starring in one of his plays and conversations with himself bemoaning his dullness, writing about his mum and a barmy old lady while others are off having proper adventures. Miss Shepherd is gloriously rude. Any whiff of charity ruffles her ego, so when a neighbour knocks on her window with a creme brulee, she accepts it with haughty contempt. Her delusions of grandeur are hilarious (she believes she’s receiving direct messages from the Virgin Mary). A wonderful Maggie Smith plays all this dead straight, poker-faced for maximum laughs. It’s a peppery, unsentimental performance. She’s hysterically funny, till she’s not – flooring you as the regret and tragedy behind Miss Shepherd’s vagabond life is revealed. 

By: Cath Clarke



Release details

Release date:
Friday November 13 2015
104 mins

Cast and crew

Nicholas Hytner
Alan Bennett
Maggie Smith
Dominic Cooper
James Corden
Alex Jennings

Users say (10)

3 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

3.2 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:1
  • 4 star:3
  • 3 star:3
  • 2 star:3
  • 1 star:0
2 people listening

I have now seen this film twice. First time at cinema and second time at home in my living room eating Christmas snacks! 

Maggie Smith is phenomenal as Mary Shepherd, the characteristics and mannerisms are outstanding and plays the role perfectly. 

Alex Jennings plays Alan Bennett and his subconscious. Between them both they really keep the mystery and the story going and you really cannot vision the outcome until later in the film.

If you enjoy a film that gets you thinking and also a film based on real events, I would thoroughly recommend this one


Maggie Smith is excellent as the cantankerous Mary Shepherd hiding from the law (and life?) in a tatty camper van in a Camden street in the seventies. This true story (with moments of fiction) by playwright Alan Bennett, who takes pity on the woman and allows her to park in his drive, is a genteel and quirky observation of this new 'lodger', his neighbours, his own relationship with his mother and, finally, himself.

The characters in the street are cast brilliantly and, although sometimes rather stereotypical, it's amusing to watch the way they observe the mysterious Lady in the Van whilst battling with both compassion and contempt as her presence challenges their cosy middle-class existence.

The film is a little slow and somewhat drawn out and at times you question where fact blends with fiction. The use of two Alan Bennetts is at first a little confusing, but then becomes a great way to let the story unfold as you get used to the two of them. It's also not 'laugh out loud' funny, but definitely tickles at times and certainly pulls on the heartstrings.

If you like human stories and enjoy, as I do, films shot in London without any Hollywood drama and gloss, then this is definitely one to watch. Personally, I was delighted to see it's set just around the corner from me and I am now off in search of the blue plaque that marks the house where her van ended up living for fifteen years....


I think this is a sweet little movie. It's different to a lot of movies nowadays. Slower, less punchy not a blockbuster or crowd pleaser. Still, a sweet movie. Less funny than I had expected.

I enjoyed the idea of Alan Bennett having conversations with himself, a split personality - one that does the writing and the other one the living.

Go see this movie, but don't expect a comedy or feel good movie though.

Read the book, seen the play. I think I would have enjoyed the film more if I hadn't.

The material has now been stretched & reworked once too often.

Overwritten to include weak cameos from a large number of National Theatre regulars.

The film gives us two Alan Bennett's, and just in case you think everything he writes is all about himself, someone in the film says exactly that.

Was the ending a feeble homage to Monty Python ? 


I was really disappointed by this film. I had seen the trailer but I really felt it was too long and somewhat dragging. Maggie smith was of course the stand out of the film but I felt it skipped some areas, especially in what lead to the ending.

Much better than l thought it would be,and a huge improvement on the weak storyline and script of the History Boys..Smith is a tour de force..However without the fictionalised sections there really would not be much of a story.In truth the women was even more unpleasant and less communicative than in the film..She refused to speak to Bennett for years


This movie is exactly as you’d imagine from the trailer – no better, no worse.

Spot on about the relationship between classes, funny with a touch of underlying sadness, it’s a moving adaptation of the memoirs and play. But the story is no revelation.

The real triumph is Miss Maggie Smith herself. Her superb acting gives her character an extraordinary array of emotions. From lovable to annoying, from dictatorial to delightful, Smith offers a magnificent take on the role. Definitely worth a watch to truly appreciate Smith’s talent fully.

If you enjoyed the trailer you’ll definitely enjoy the film, but do not expect a masterpiece.


Went to the gala premiere of this as part of the BFI London Film Festival. 

It is based on a true story of a lady who lived in a van in Alan Bennett's driveway for 15 years.  It is a nice quirky 'typically British' film with a lot of gentle humour.  I liked the way they had two Alan Bennett's in the film as if he were a twin and a lot of the dialogue was between his 2 different personas  - his creative one and his social one.  Another nice touch was that the film was set in the actual location in Camden that the original story happened.  I'm not sure how much of it is actually true, but it was a very entertaining film.

a superb film. Maggie Smith is excellent as is Alex Jenning playing Allan Bennett. Touching and comical. I love watching the streets of Camden as they would have been in the seventies