Out now on DVD, The Lady in the Van, written by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hytner, tells the “mostly true story” of a homeless elderly woman, Mary Shepherd, who Bennett encounters by chance and eventually allows her to park her mysterious van on his driveway. Subsequently, Mary (played by Maggie Smith) does not leave for 15 years, and Bennett finds his life rather overtaken by her. Through her interactions with the general public, we get to learn more about the mysterious Miss Shepherd and her background, and the strange relationship between both her and Bennett.
The star of the show here is undoubtedly Maggie Smith, who portrays the abrupt and overtly-religious Mary Shepherd with absolute realism. Of course, she’s never failed to entertain in her other films, but there’s something particularly special about her performance in The Lady in the Van. From the moment we’re introduced to her in her damaged Bedford van she takes hold of the audience. She’s homeless and she’s not shy about it – she arrives on Gloucester Crescent in all her glory, and promptly takes over all talk of the neighbourhood as she moves from space to space. Despite the residents’ welcoming she’s not particularly receptive, although she seems to take a bit more of a liking to Alan and parks outside his house with no intention of leaving. After a series of events including harassment of Miss Shepherd, Alan eventually decides to offer her a space on his unused driveway, and it is here the complicated relationship between the two develops, and we get a real insight into Bennett’s mind as well.
Alex Jennings plays a wonderful Alan Bennett – although slightly confusing at first, he plays two sides of Bennett – the one who does the living and the one who does the writing. He portrays Bennett’s inner conflicts well, and as a viewer we can feel the struggle between him and Miss Shepherd from the very beginning. Bennett often contrasts Miss Shepherd with his own mother, whose age becomes increasingly apparent over the 15 year span of the film. The film may be about Miss Shepherd, but this alternate relationship within the Bennetts (with a whole different set of struggles) is really rather poignant.
The other characters within the film all play important parts, with a lot of well-known actors featuring within. The neighbours have a particularly important role – their interactions with each other sculpt the characters of both Bennett and Miss Shepherd, and give us more of an insight into both of them. Misusing side characters can be a fatal mistake in a film like this, and so it was nice to see Bennett and Hytner paying equally as much attention to them. As with anything written by Alan Bennett, the script is very witty, and really makes the film. The score includes Chopin, which is highly relevant to the storyline, and various other pieces conducted by George Fenton, which really add to the overall feel. I have no complaints about the visuals as they were all beautiful framed, and I got the feeling that a lot of thought had gone into the piece as a whole.
Some might argue that nothing really happens throughout the film, which is true. This isn’t a bad thing though, as Bennett is exploring more the relationships and internal thoughts of the characters. When a film does this well then you don’t really need a plot, and so Bennett succeeded here. Unfortunately, I found the ending a bit too rushed – it didn’t quite wrap it up as smoothly as I hoped, and I felt parts towards the end could have been explored further. I think Alan Bennet was trying to settle it all in his mind, but it didn’t necessarily do it justice. The Lady in the Van is both a quirky and cosy film. I’d say it’s probably more for mature audiences, or those that enjoy more of a ponder than a regular, structured storyline.
It was an enjoyable, easy to follow watch, and so I’m giving it 4/5.
The Lady in the Van at CeX
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