Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Alan Bennett
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
The Lady in the Van is really good if you like watching movies about the elderly, the homeless and the incontinent. (Spoiler alert: I don’t mind them.) Maggie Smith, who is the lady in the van, is a real piece of work in this British comedy about London playwright Alan Bennett and the homeless woman who parked her van on his driveway and stayed put there for 15 years.
Mancurian director Nicholas Hytner takes from Bennett’s book of the same name, a book that has already seen a stage production with Smith in the titular role as the housingly-challenged Miss Mary Shepherd. Hytner’s adaptation is a modest farce generally concerned with the struggle between two main characters as one fights for their right to be and the other fights for their right to be in peace.
The film was shot on location in the northern London district of Camden Town, at the very house and driveway where the squatting happened. While observing Shepherd and Bennett’s interactions, Van ruminates on a variety of personal and social issues, not least of which being the nation’s treatment of the homeless — controversy over squatter’s rights emerges as one of the more intriguing narrative cruxes. But it’s also a measuring stick for personal growth. Bennett seeks more recognition for his West End plays that aren’t doing so well. And like Bennett we would like to know what befell Shepherd to put her into such dire straits.
The film certainly feels like it’s adapted from a play. You can imagine the set. There are only so many people we keep seeing out and about and they show up in such regular intervals it seems a little too coincidental. The world feels oh-so-small and quaint and controlled as they come and go from stage left and right. It’s a piece that revolves around one unusual prop — her hideously yellow van (well, it was once a morose mixture of green and gray before she “painted” it). And there’s a brilliant narrative device that splices Jennings’ performance into two distinct manifestations: he plays Bennett, the perpetually distracted writer and Bennett the tenant, who is desperate to figure out how to get rid of the cantankerous old woman. Much of his time on screen is spent arguing with himself and Jennings really makes it amusing.
As much fun as Jennings is this is still Smith’s show. Dressed in layers of tattered rags and under makeup that gives the impression the woman has traveled many more miles and endured very hard times indeed, Smith is essentially mummified for the part. Visually its amusing (sort of) but even this wardrobe can’t conceal the gravitas of a performer with the kind of experience Dame Maggie Smith has. She teases out just enough vulnerability as a former Nun now facing life on the street, coloring a complex character with shades of empathy — if only just shades — that keeps us entranced, despite a lethargic pace.
Van isn’t anything flashy on the outside (save for that oddly out of place Monty Python-esque segment towards the end that takes place in a cemetery) but on the inside it is surprisingly cozy and well worth spending an afternoon with, unlike its titular character. She’s certainly no uptown girl.
Recommendation: One for the Maggie Smith fans, The Lady in the Van pairs farcical comedy with heartfelt drama about life on the streets. Offers an interesting look at a transient way of life, a lifestyle that doesn’t make its way into too many films sadly (you might have to go to Sundance and other high-profile film fests to find more like it). Performances invite you in and consistently entertain, with Jennings making for a lovable put-upon and Smith a stubborn force to be reckoned with.
Running Time: 104 mins.
Quoted: “I am not the carer. She is there, I am here. There is no caring.”
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