Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Stars: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Frances de la Tour, Sam Spruell, Claire Foy, Cecilia Noble.
Based on the stage play written by Alan Bennett, one of most successful contemporary playwrights in England with credits including The History Boys, The Madness Of King George, etc, this is “mostly a true story” that mixes fact and fiction in an entertaining mix.
The play was inspired by Bennett’s encounter with Mary Shepherd (dual Oscar winner Maggie Smith), the eccentric transient bag lady who parked her clapped out camper van in his driveway for fifteen years. At the end of the 60s the homeless Shepherd had become a bit of a fixture in the leafy Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town when she parked her van outside houses of this tony upmarket suburb. The residents quickly tired of her presence outside their house and forced her to move further down the road either by playing music or bringing her small gifts and food, which somehow seemed to annoy her. Eventually though the local council cracked down on street parking, and insisted that she move away completely.
Out of some misguided sense of charity, the reclusive and deeply private Bennett reluctantly allowed her to park her van in his driveway. It was only supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but Shepherd remained there for fifteen years. We learn very little about her background and life, although Bennett manages to tease out some biographical details as he learns some that she is not the person everyone thinks she is. He discovers that she once was a gifted concert pianist and a nun before some event sent her on her downward spiral.
Bennett drew upon his experiences with the cantankerous and outspoken and mysteriously reclusive woman who lived in filth and squalor to shape his play, which was first performed on the London stage in 1999 with Maggie Smith in the title role. The play was directed by theatre veteran Nicholas Hytner who has previously collaborated with Bennett numerous times. He made his feature film directorial debut with Bennett’s The Madness Of King George. Hytner and Bennett attempt to open the material beyond its theatrical origins and are reasonably successful. They have even shot much of the film in the actual street where Bennett lived. However the film seems a little episodic in nature.
Smith reprises her role for this film version of the play, and she shines in a role that seems written with her in mind. This is one of her best performances, and she inhabits the character completely and fittingly dominates every scene. Smith brings her unique irascible charm to the role; she also brings some energy to her performance, which is also shaped by her usual displays of withering putdowns, haughty disdain, sarcastic wit, disapproving scowls and prickly humour. She also manages to bring a dignity to her role, so audiences are not sure whether to pity her or loathe her.
There is a great chemistry between Smith and Alex Jennings (from tv series Silk, etc), who is also quite good as the fastidious, closeted and deeply private Bennett. Jennings plays him as something of a milquetoast. Jim Broadbent is wasted in a small role as a bullying stranger who seems to know more about Miss Shepherd’s past. Hytner has also cast some of his History Boys ensemble (Dominic Cooper, James Corden) in small roles here.
The film also draws a wonderful parallel between Bennett’s relationship with his aging, clinging mother, who is suffering from the onset of dementia, and his prickly relationship with the iron willed Miss Shepherd and her odious body odour and manipulative nature. Bennett eventually seems to grow more protective of her.
Bennett’s script is full of self deprecating wit, and it mixes pathos and comedy, but it doesn’t become overly sentimental. A cinematic touch gives us two Bennetts – one the clever, articulate and questioning playwright exploring the dramatic potential of the situation as he labours over his script, the other the more rational and private man not quite sure how to handle her intrusion into his life- as he engages in some internal dialogue and conflicted views about whether he is exploiting Miss Shepherd for his own artistic gain. It’s a device that works better on the screen that it probably did in the theatre where it would have been presented as more of an internal monologue.
The Lady In The Van has a melancholy and bittersweet tone as it deals with universal themes such as ageing, compassion, mortality, loneliness, and the creative process. The film itself is aimed at the some demographic as films like Tea With Mussolini, the recent 45 Years and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and their ilk.
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