The Lady in the Van (2015) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and a brief unsettling image
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour
Small role: Dominic Cooper, James Corden
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Screenplay: Alan Bennett
Review published February 11, 2016
Dame Maggie Smith (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, My Old Lady) shines yet again, receiving a Golden Globe nomination for playing a homeless woman with a mysterious history who ends up living in a van in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett (Jennings, Belle), who not only writes the script for The Lady in the Van, based on his memoir published in book form in 1989, but he also makes a real-life appearance at the film's conclusion. It's not a part unknown to Smith, who portrayed the titular lady who lives in a van not only in its initial incarnation in Bennett's adapted play in London's West End back in 1999, but also in a radio play for the BBC in 2009.
It's a "mostly true story," as it states in a blurb before the action that takes place within the course of the tale, embellished for our entertainment so that it goes down easier and more interesting than the events that actually transpire over the course of some fifteen years, from the early 1970s through the 1980s. Smith stars as Miss Mary Shepherd, an elderly woman who lives in a van in Camden Town, a North London residential area (reportedly filmed at the very location), who ends up moving ever so slightly into the driveway of a bleeding-heart playwright Bennett, much to the consternation of Bennett's neighbors, who see the van as an eyesore and Mary as a nuisance who offends their every sense, especially as she isn't quite successful at proper waste disposal. Alex Jennings portrays two versions of Alan Bennett, one the author at the typewriter and the other the one who actually does the real living; they perpetually converse and conflict with one another about the story at hand, though the characters around them only see them as the latter entity.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, Center Stage), the movie rides on that performance of Smith, requiring that we like her for her amusingly cranky outbursts and her heartbreaking underpinnings of a woman with suppressed psychological pain. Though the film concentrates heavily on Alan Bennett as a character, whose motivations for helping an older woman may stem from his own feelings of guilt for his reluctance to do more for his own ailing mother, the real star of the show is Smith, and the entertainment you derive from the film as a whole will likely be determined by how much you enjoy watching the venerable actress do her thing, both through the comedy and the tragedy of her enigmatically neurotic character. It plays like a more grounded version of such films about the talented but mentally damaged homeless like The Fisher King, The Soloist, and Reign Over Me, as most of the film's plot revolves around the main character coming to terms about her past in order to, hopefully, move on with life. We must learn why she clings to her van, why she can't stand hearing classical music, contemptuously accepts charity, and a few other tidbits that relate to the life she ran away from.
The end of the film sees a tonal shift from the previous mix of standard dramedy to unabashed silliness. When it occurs, you'll either wonder why the filmmakers had been desperate to leave audiences leaving the theater with a smile on their faces, or you'll wish that this refreshingly irreverent tone had been there all along. Story summation issues notwithstanding, The Lady in the Van will still likely please older moviegoers who comprise of most of Maggie Smith's admirers, and who typically take in an independent, British art-house comedies. Most audiences outside of this demographic may find this vehicle too often down-shifting to 'Park' to feel the venture worthwhile.
©2016 Vince Leo