Should I Watch..? 'The Lady in the Van'
What's the big deal?
The Lady In The Van is a comedy drama film released in 2015 and is adapted by Alan Bennett from his stage-play of the same name, itself based on real-life events. Directed by stage veteran Nicholas Hytner, the film stars Dame Maggie Smith as the enigmatic Miss Shepherd - an eccentric vagrant who manages to end up living in a van on Alan Bennett's driveway for a prolonged period of time. The film also stars Alex Jennings as Bennett, Francis de la Tour, Roger Allam, Gwen Taylor and Jim Broadbent - it also features the cast of Bennett's play "The History Boys" in cameos with the exception of the late Richard Griffiths. The film received a warm reception from critics and went on to take more than $41 million worldwide. It also saw Smith win a Best Actress BAFTA at the 2015 ceremony.
What's it about?
The film details the true-life of Mary Shepherd, a homeless lady living inside a squalid Bedford van around north London in the Seventies. Having infuriated the residents of Gloucester Crescent for some time, she befriends reclusive playwright Alan Bennett who has recently moved onto the street. As their friendship continues and his fascination with her grows, she persuades him to allow her to park the van on his driveway as a temporary measure to prevent her from losing the van altogether. She ends up staying for fifteen years.
As time passes, he slowly begins to piece together the facts of her life. She used to be a classically-trained pianist as well as a nun and her name may not even be Mary Shepherd. And as Bennett begins to realise that she may be more than the cantankerous old lady she is today, his works increasingly begins to focus more on her - just as his personal life and patience begin to show signs of strain...
Francis de la Tour
Ursula Vaughn Williams
Alan Bennett *
Release Date (UK)
13th November, 2015
Biography, Comedy, Drama
What's to like?
For a film that weighs so heavily on seasoned shoulders, Smith delivers a typically knock-out performance as the occasionally-lovable, neighbourhood crazy-lady who spends her time chatting to the Virgin Mary, painting her van bright yellow with a dish-brush and chasing away anyone playing music. While the script lends a hand as more of her story is revealed, it's Smith's performance that genuinely leaves you feeling sorry for this wretched creature. Alongside her, Jennings' portrayal of Bennett almost borders on impression - the vocal mimicry and physical appearance of Jennings is absolutely spot-on while the dialogue gives him plenty of delicious lines to savour and deliver.
The film manages to avoid toppling into schmaltz for the most part, giving its cast plenty of room to work their magic. Given how much of the cast and crew are based in the theatre, it's not surprising that the film feels as real as it does - the only disappointment is Broadbent as the film's sole antagonist who is little more than a rat in an old suit. The film also has much to say on the unfairness of society - the slight differences between the haves of the residents of Gloucester Crescent and the have-nots like Miss Shepherd. It takes pains to point out that Miss Shepherd is not in her predicament by choice while the somewhat snooty residents keeping their distance from her are somewhat far from being noble.
- The film was shot in the same house on the same street in Camden where the events took place. Many residents remembered the original Miss Shepherd and were stunned to see the van rolling down the road for shooting.
- While Richard Griffith was the only cast member from "The History Boys" not to appear due to his death in 2013, one of the child actors appearing as one of the neighbours children was coincidentally called Richard Griffith.
- Smith, Broadbent and de la Tour all appeared in the Harry Potter movies although this is the first time they share the screen outside Hogwarts. A subtle reference is made when Smith asks for sherbet lemons - one of the passwords for Professor Dumbledore's office.
What's not to like?
Ironically for a film about a van that doesn't go anywhere, the film's screenplay never seems to have a final destination of its own. Much is made of Miss Shepherd's tragic past but there is little sense of time passing, besides barely noticeable changes to hairstyles, vehicles and fashions. The unveiling of the mystery is also handled somewhat clumsily with Bennett somehow turning private-eye and popping up to question periphery characters as the film rumbles on. The ending is also something of a let-down with frankly bizarre flights of fancy taking over from what had been very much an everyday sort of drama.
It also isn't as funny as I would have liked it to be. It's a very gentle, Sunday-afternoon sort of production that doesn't get too controversial or racy for fear of upsetting anyone. I wanted a bit more life, a bit more comedy besides Smith's wide-eyed irascibility and James Corden's all-too-brief cameo as a charming market trader. Lastly, I wanted someone other than Bennett as the put-upon victim of Miss Shepherd's attention. It might sound odd to say it but I found the character too remote, as though he was as much of an eccentric as the van-dwelling vagrant imposing on his generosity. Of course, real life was as convenient as that but I felt the film might have worked better if the toffee-nosed neighbours played by Allam and Findlay were the subjects of Miss Shepherd's friendship and Bennett reduced to the role of intrigued observer.
Should I watch it?
The Lady In The Van might not be a relentless rib-tickler but it offers an intriguing blend of character study, mystery and class warfare to warrant a watch. Smith delivers one of the performances of her long career as Shepherd while Jennings' performance as Bennett is also well worth enjoying. But the film's aloof nature and lack of sustained laughs hinder its appeal beyond that of more mature viewers.
Great For: older audiences, fans of Alan Bennett, Sunday afternoons
Not So Great For: viewers under thirty, non-British viewers, action fans
What else should I watch?
Studios finally seemed to have understood that viewers of a certain age also go to the pictures as well, not just teenagers with attention-deficit disorder. Films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet appeal to viewers over the age of 50 and are proving to be quite successful. Other films worth checking out include Amour - a French-language drama about the relationship between two senior citizens after one of them suffers a stroke - and the comedy-drama Youth which sees Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel reminiscing on holiday in Switzerland.
Bennett is one of England's more revered and respected writers with a broad body of work to his name. Cinematically, his most famous work is arguably The Madness Of King George which coincidentally was also directed by Nicholas Hytner. Other examples of Bennett's work include the film adaptation of The History Boys adaptation and Prick Up Your Ears about the murdered playwright Joe Orton.
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© 2016 Benjamin Cox