LADY IN THE VAN, THE
Playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) forms an unexpected bond with Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) a transient woman living in her van parked in his driveway. (Inspired by a true story)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As a 'mostly true story', The Lady in the Van is a delicious piece of English eccentricity, overcoming what could be seen as self indulgence by the writer at the centre of it, by its timidity - another English trait. Timidity insofar as there is no vicious satire, no vulgar joking at the expense of the characters and only very subtle satirizing of the neighbours in Camden, an area of London that was in the process of gentrifying in the 70s, when this story is set.
On the other hand, the filmmakers are far from timid when it comes to cinematic devices: one is the presentation of Alan Bennett as both the man and the writer, both played by Alex Jennings with disarming ease. He talks to himself as he writes, as he interacts with Miss Shepherd and sometimes just as a narrator. The device allows the screenplay certain freedoms which help progress the story. The second device is a piece of fun which I won't spoil, and it does nothing more than add a touch of frivolity to the ending.
As for Maggie Smith, she revels in the disheveled, grumpy and stinky old bag, whose persona is as revolting as her habits. That she makes us care for her is a minor miracle, and owes much to Maggie being a star whose transgressions - in character - are never held against her. She also manages to add depth and complexity to a challenging character, whose outer protective shell has a deep wound she tries to hide and for which she pays permanent penance.
Review by Louise Keller:
Wonderfully entertaining with an accomplished performance by the indefatigable Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van is all at once charming, funny and poignant. Based on his memoir, playwright Alan Bennett has constructed a screenplay that sings - in part due to the clever duality of the protagonist (himself) and his alter ego, (the writer), who spends his entire life talking to himself and observing others. The perspective is inspired and allows a somewhat quizzical, analytical approach to Bennett's relationship with the eccentric, cantankerous, ungracious, infuriating and contradictory Lady in the Van (Smith). Nicholas Hytner, who also directed Bennett's adaptation of his stage-play The History Boys in 2006 has captured the essence of an unusual relationship that does not follow any predictable path. Such is Bennett's fascination for this relationship that it became the inspiration for a radio play, a book, a stage play - and now a film.
When we meet Alan Bennett (played with great understatement by Alex Jennings), he is clearly a man whose life is for the most part an internal one. Through voice over, we hear the words that escape from his pen as they describe his inner thoughts with descriptive imagery. Damp newspaper is the essence of poverty, he writes as a flurry of words pour forth, articulating his disgust at the foul smell that emanates from the homeless elderly lady who has put down roots in his elegant Camden Town street in 1970 London. There are two of him - his introverted creative self and the man who communicates with the outside world. I live; you write, he tells his alter ego.
The all-important establishment of Mary Shepherd is a slow process, and Smith inhabits her with all the complex eccentricities imaginable. She plays the role with a brash sense of self-entitlement; she is needy but independent and the more we learn about her, the more curious we become - through the eyes of Bennett, in whose driveway she parks her egg-yellow van, painted haphazardly like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Although the neighbourhood shudders at her presence, its inhabitants also project a sense of caring interest - a mix of charity and neighbourly concern, continuing to offer her pears and cr¸me brulee, even when she accepts or rejects them without grace.
There is an irony about the two women in Bennett's life. Both are elderly - and 'deluded': his mother and Mary and he has a love hate relationship with both. An underlying sadness prevails in both relationships. Then there are the relationships in Mary Shepherd's life - Jim Broadbent's late night visitor, the man who lives in the house with the blue door. What role does the church play in Mary's life - and more importantly, music and the piano?
This is an unusual story that you will not forget. Nor will you forget Maggie Smith's performance, which is remarkable.
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LADY IN THE VAN, THE (M)
CAST: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Taylor, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Sam McArdle, Clare Hammond
PRODUCER: Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones, Kevin Loader
DIRECTOR: Nicholas Hytner
SCRIPT: Alan Bennett (memoir by Bennett)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrew Dunn
EDITOR: Tariq Anwar
MUSIC: George Fenton
PRODUCTION DESIGN: John Beard
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 3, 2016