The Lady In The Van


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

The Lady In The Van
"By locating its own dedicated critic within the action of the film, it is possible to point out the triteness and question whether life can be so simply encapsulated within the tidy confines of literature."

If you enjoy watching Maggie Smith, and celebrate the subdued humour so typically associated with poking gently at ineffectual British intellectuals and the well-meaning, politely spoken chattering classes, then you will enjoy The Lady In The Van.

For this tale, based on a play by Alan Bennett, in turn based on real life incident in which the aforementioned lady in a van, Margaret (or possibly Mary) Shepherd did, indeed, pull up on the front drive of his Camden des res for a short stop, before staying for 15 years, is English to its understated core.

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One half expects former Prime Minister John Major - who bears a striking resemblance to Alan Bennett (played here with adequate meekness by Alex Jennings) - to pop up talking “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’”.

Outwardly, The Lady In The Van suffers the same affliction as any and all comedy seeking to net the “Britishness” protected status - it’s twee, quirky, gentle, mannered, in ways that American comedy never is. A cautionary tale of where tolerance lands you - in Bennett’s case, with an angry, uncompromising elderly lady, who rapidly decides that what’s hers is hers and what’s his is also hers, before spreading both her plastic-bagged cornucopia, as well as abundant quantities of excrement, about the entrance to his house.

Ealing, out of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, perhaps. If you like those, you’ll love this. If you don’t, you won’t.

That, though, is seriously to undersell what is on offer here. The film’s theatrical origins show throughout in the quality of the dialogue and its essential staging as a two-hander. Strong support is offered, between the main courses, by the likes of James Broadbent, Roger Allam, James Corden and Frances de la Tour but in the end this is largely a battle of words and wit between the van lady and the playwright.

Or rather, between Ms Shepherd and Bennett and Bennett. For the trick of The Lady In The Van that lifts it, ultimately, beyond the ordinary is the division of Alan Bennett into two - between the everyday, flustered, rabbit-in-headlights chap who has no idea how to deal with the monstrosity that has landed in his drive and the cooler, calmer, invisible intellectual who offers sound advice from the wings, while all the time hoovering up incident and dialogue for future creative use.

This device permits the film to go beyond a simple depiction of events, allowing both writer (Bennett) and director Nicholas Hytner to ask pointed questions about the relationship between real life and fiction. Thus, The Lady In The Van manages to play with the irony that Bennett is simultaneously dealing with one difficult old lady, Ms Shepherd, while spectacularly failing to deal with another, his ageing mother.

However, it is too easy to draw trite and easy parallels - so by locating its own dedicated critic within the action of the film, it is possible to point out the triteness and question whether life can be so simply encapsulated within the tidy confines of literature.

“It didn’t happen like that!”, objects real life Alan at one point, as literary Alan neatens up yet another incident. But perhaps it should have. Rather like the ending, which takes flight, literally, from all earthly convention and for one joyful minute appears to be channelling Life Of Brian and the imagination of Terry Gilliam.

This is yet another fine performance by Maggie Smith as a mad, and in the end, sad old woman with a secret. Behind the awfulness lies personal tragedy which Smith conceals from the audience almost to the very end. Whether this performance wins her her third Oscar is immaterial, its an Oscar-worthy performance, and that is what matters.

Reviewed on: 26 Nov 2015
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A man forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman living in her car that's parked on his driveway.
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London 2015

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