Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Review: "The Lady in the Van"
The best storytellers often seem to have things happen to them that are worthy of a story.
Take Alan Bennett, a well-regarded playwright living in a quaint house in London’s Camden Town during the 1970s. He allowed a homeless woman living in a van to park in his driveway out of pity. She stayed 15 years, resulting in a love/hate relationship for the ages.
He turned the tale into a hit play in the late 1990s, and now adapts it into this screenplay. Bennett teams up with director Nicholas Hytner, who previously helmed other film versions of his plays, “The History Boys” and “The Madness of King George.”
It’s a lovely story, a bracing mix of sweet sentiment and acerbic confrontation. Alex Jennings is sensitive and quietly charismatic playing Bennett himself. But the movie is largely a showcase for Maggie Smith, who originated the role onstage and also performed it on radio broadcasts.
It’s the perfect marriage of performer and script, letting Smith explore a seemingly repellant person and find out a little about how she got that way. I won’t say that we end up adoring her, but we gain a firm grasp of her humanity.
The screen version of Bennett is a bit of a pisser himself, a loner who enjoys his status and his solitude. He arranges for clandestine trysts with other men, since being openly gay is not really an option in that time period, though his sexuality is not much of a mystery to his few friends and neighbors. Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay play the seemingly nice couple across the street, who are obsessed with their snooty image and the bohemian charm of their street.
One of the neighborhood traditions is seeing who has to “host” Mary Shepherd, an eccentric old lady who lives in an ancient van that she parks in front of a house for weeks or months at a time. She’s seen as annoying but harmless, a combination of local mascot and curse, and it’s become something of a game as to who she will favor with her presence. Soon enough Bennett becomes the lucky one.
Then the van breaks down and she goes from boarder to squatter.
Smith, as Miss Shepherd, can be hilarious one moment and abhorrently inappropriate the next. She seems to have a very high opinion of herself, and has a habit of making the most outlandish statements, which she will temper ever so slightly as to their veracity by adding the word “possibly” to the end.
Miss Shepherd makes all sorts of little requests, which soon turn into demands, such as using the lavatory. She spends most of her time in the van, which is filled to the brim with assorted bits of junk. As time goes on the van/home changes, acquiring new coats of paints and even a complete change-out to a new vehicle. But Miss Shepherd remains as unalterable as a mountain.
Eventually we learn more about her and her real background, which I’ll not reveal here.
Miss Shepherd does get some visitors, mostly unwanted: a social worker (Cecilia Noble), who warns Bennett that by allowing her to stay so long he’s acquired some measure of responsibility over her. And a shadowy man named Underwood (Jim Broadbent), who comes banging on the van at night, making threats and demanding cash.
“The Lady in the Van” is a cozy little picture, the sort of movie that leaves us feeling a little warmer and wiser than before. It’s a reminder that life is what happens to us while we’re looking the other way.