The Lady in the Van

'The Lady in the Van' movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

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.

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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.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the carer. She is there, I am here. There is no caring.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

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22 thoughts on “The Lady in the Van

  1. Nice review, I really like Maggie Smith. She has a knack for popping up in movies and completely stealing all the scenes in which she is present.

  2. I really quite enjoyed this, and not just because some scenes were filmed in Broadstairs (the seaside stuff) which is about 5 miles from where I was born. Smith especially gives a moving performance.

    • That’s excellent inside information there Mark! 🙂 Really cool. I did enjoy this too. It’s not something I’d ever own of course but isn’t Maggie Smith such fun?

  3. Yay! Another Tom review! I missed out on this one but my hubby went to a senior citizen screening (haha! He’s not that old…) and really enjoyed it. So I told him he’s old & boring. But it does look like a pleasant Sunday afternoon type of movie. 🙂

    • Hah! A senior citizen screening. Hilarious. But also, cute. (Spoiler alert: that’s pretty much what my experience was. I was the youngest in the theatre by several decades. Whoops, that was rude.)

      Oh this will totally fit the bill for a Sunday afternoon/evening in. Maggie Smith is great. So is Alex Jennings.

  4. I’m glad this has got a release over your way, and interesting to read your take on it. It did well over here last year and was on in cinemas for weeks and weeks, but there was always something that I wanted to see ahead of it, so I never bothered going. I like Bennett, too, but just couldn’t quite muster the enthusiasm for this film.

    • Yeah, right? US gets this f**king rig but not Bone Tomahawk or Macbeth. I don’t understand distributing sometimes. E-hem. Anyway. Yeah this movie is a good time. Nothing I will recall further down the road but it marks a first for me — this is the first time I’ve seen Alex Jennings in anything and he’s fun. Perhaps give this a rental when it becomes available, see what you think. 🙂

      • Haha ‘this f**king rig’! I like it. I’m surprised you haven’t had Macbeth yet given there’s a couple of famous names, though as much as Cotillard and Fassbender are fawned over by us amateur movie critics (and the professional ones too) I’m not so sure either are big box office draws in their own right. I presume you’ll be getting it at some point though. I’ll try and check this out at some point…it’s the kind of thing my wife will like, so I can watch something on our main TV for a change instead of having to watch miserable dramas on my PC! #firstworldproblems

        • Hahah i know, right? TV, or PC? Standard def or Hi-def? 720p or 1080? 😉

          Macbeth hasn’t hit the states I’m assuming because it’ll be a much bigger draw in the UK. I think that’s lame though and that’s also a big assumption on my part. Perhaps we will get it. I def hope we do, I love the casting and just know that Fassbender and Cotillard are the caliber actors of this day and age to take the material seriously and deliver it convincingly. Whatever the wait shall be, I’m sure it’ll be worth it

          • Yeah it’s pretty good, though definitely a fashionable take on Shakespeare…a little bit Game Of Thrones-y at times, and some critics even suggested it looked like a Zack Snyder film at times! But I don’t want to poop on a parade before it has even taken place…I liked it.

    • It is quite fun, the slow pace and the characters are going to be easy turn-offs for many but as Mark says just below here, this is one that will have Maggie Smith fans in heaven. She’s the main focus (but equally compelling I thought was this Alex Jennings guy whom I’ve never heard of until now.)

    • Thanks for the read! Minor film but I was glad I ended up going. 🙂 I haven’t seen too many Maggie Smith films, I have to admit but I’m in no way doing that intentionally

    • This is one I have NOT seen. Shall I change this? 😉 I think this was the first thing I’ve ever seen Bennett in and he was pretty enjoyable. A good counter to Smith’s gratingness

      • He’s not in it but he wrote it. I think it, too, was a play before it was a film. It’s pretty low key as you describe this one. So it won’t dazzle you in any way but I like it enough to have watched it a number of times – my nostalgia for England probably has something to do with it, too.

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