THE LADY IN THE VAN (UK/12A/104mins)
Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Starring Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith, Frances De La Tour, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Anderson, Russell Tovey, Roger Allam, James Corden
THE PLOT: Based on a real relationship that writer Alan Bennett had, Maggie Smith plays Miss Mary Shepherd, a house-less woman who lives in her van, which Alan Bennett allows her to park in his driveway, where she stayed for 15 years. Although Miss Shepherd seems to be cantankerous and ungrateful, it soon becomes clear that she has led a tragic and colourful life.
THE VERDICT: ‘The Lady in the Van’ is based on Alan Bennett’s 1999 stage play of the same name, which in turn is based on a real relationship the playwright had with a woman on the fringes of society. Maggie Smith is the star of the show here, as the abrasive and obsessively private Miss Shepherd. Smith carefully treads the line between tragedy and comedy, and breathes life into the character, while also making sure that audience sympathy lies with this difficult local character.
Alex Jennings takes on the role of Alan Bennett, making the man timid and gently spoken but – in a little twist of the narrative – someone who talks to, berates and argues with himself as though there is another version of himself in the room. The rest of the cast includes Frances De La Tour, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Anderson, Russell Tovey, Roger Allam and James Corden. Most of them do not have a whole lot to do, since this really is the story of Bennett and his unlikely neighbour.
The story, written for the screen by Alan Bennett, claims to be mostly true, and perhaps it is this need to stick to events as they happened that gives the film a slightly underwhelming feeling. There are hints of car crashes, bribery and rumours surrounding Miss Shepherd, but the film focuses on the day to day, and the biggest trouble seems to be Miss Shepherd using Bennett’s bathroom. As well as this, the film desperately tries to draw parallels between Bennett’s mother and his unwanted neighbour, but this feels clumsy for the most part, as do some of the conversations between Bennett’s writer self and life self. Oh, and the less said about the ending the better.
Director Nicholas Hytner seems to have had fun with Smith and Jennings, and since much of the film focuses on conversations between the two, these are a joy to watch. The film that surrounds them is less successful however, with subplots appearing and disappearing, and the passage of time being shown in no real manner, other than in the peeling of the paint on Miss Shepherd’s van.
In all, the success of ‘The Lady in the Van’ is completely down to Maggie Smith and her on screen relationship with Alex Jennings. The film tries hard to create mystery and intrigue around Miss Shepard’s past and fails, for the most part, but the film is still sweet for the most part, it just doesn’t look deep enough beneath the comedy of a prickly woman to find the true tragedy underneath.
Review by Brogen Hayes

The Lady in the Van
Review by Brogen Hayes
3.0Superficial but sweet
  • filmbuff2011

    Described in the opening titles as ‘a mostly true story’, The Lady In The Van is a quintessentially English story told with wit, emotion and a dash of movie magic. Based on playwright and actor Alan Bennett’s memoir, it focuses on the man himself. Alan (Alex Jennings) is living in Camden Town in the 1970s – a familiar retreat for the artistically-minded. In a movie conceit, he sees himself as twins – one as a writer who sits at his desk and just writes. The other Alan goes outside and interacts with the world. It’s at this point that he meets the soon-to-be infamous Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith). She’s on old lady who lives in the titular van. She doesn’t smell good, is cantankerous and not particularly grateful to neighbourly acts of kindness. But she becomes part of the fabric of the neighbourhood when she parks outside Alan’s house and subsequently moves into his driveway. He brings her cups of tea, lets her use the toilet and keeps a watchful eye on her. There’s more to her than rubbish bags, crankiness and painting her van a rusty banana-yellow though. She has a rich backstory that goes back to World War II, so Alan delves a bit deeper. While caring for his own ailing mother, he sees something inspirational in Miss Shepherd. Something that he could use for his writing material… The Lady In The Van is a pure and simple delight. Director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness Of King George) takes what could have been a silly, possibly melodramatic story and turns it into something whimsical and consistently funny. There’s an undeniable charm to this most unlikely story and most of that comes courtesy of the delightful Smith. Her line delivery is spot-on and drily funny. Take the moment where Miss Shepherd is asked by Alan if she wants a cup of tea – half a cup will do, thank you. She makes a potentially irritating character a lot more interesting, thanks to hints of an education well spent in Paris. How did she end up like this? It’s a slow reveal, but it’s well-judged and beautifully underplayed by Smith. A move at the end towards the fantastical, Monty Python-style, as well as breaking the fourth wall is a slight mis-step but it’s forgivable given what came before. It’s a portrait of a more forgiving time, so one wonders if the same scenario would work in our less neighbourly times. Bennett recently said ‘if the film has a point, it’s about fairness and tolerance and however grudgingly helping the less fortunate, who are not well thought of these days. And now likely to be even less so.’ Quite. The Lady In The Van is a hoot, but it also has a heart. ****

  • emerb

    “Lady In A Van” sees veteran actress Maggie Smith reprise her acclaimed stage performance as Miss. Shepherd, an elderly, dotty, homeless woman who lived in a broken-down, yellow campervan in playwright Alan Bennett’s front garden in North London for 15 years. We’re informed at the beginning of Nicholas Hytner’s screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s 1999 play that it’s “mostly a true story” and that kind of an introduction always gets me interested – I was not disappointed. The film is hugely entertaining, big hearted and funny.

    The story, which begins in 1970, sees Bennett (a very impressive Alex Jennings) buy a house in Gloucester Crescent. It is a leafy upscale close-knit neighbourhood and his neighbours are artsy folk, writers and intellectuals. When he arrives, Miss. Shepherd (Smith) is already antagonizing the residents. She is incredibly rude and ungrateful. Classical music, in particular, aggravates her, with children practicing instruments getting the full brunt of her ire and any questions about her presence or plans for moving on are met with statements of daft Catholic conviction about her prescribed path. The local authorities threaten to move her on but Bennett’s reluctant sense of compassion lead him to take pity and allow her to temporarily use his drive. She never leaves!

    One clever but tricky technique used in the film is the presence of two identical Bennetts, both expertly played by Alex Jennings. They are both in constant, argumentative conversation with each other. One of them participates in the action while the other observes and sardonically comments on it. For me, it is the exchanges between the two versions of the character which provide the film with some of its sharpest and wittiest moments.

    This has to be one of the most tailor-made roles ever for Maggie Smith. She is excellent and undoubtedly few characters could lend such credibility to a character so haughty, self-entitled, rude and bossy. It is Smiths’ talent that she makes the crotchedy upper-class vagrant neither lovable nor wholly intolerable. Just like her cantankerous dowager in Downton Abbey, she is still lording it over everybody but this time, she’s dressed down in a filthy too-big men’s coat with rips and smears and is completely oblivious to her own lack of hygiene. She plays it all so dead straight and poker faced – any whiff of charity ruffles her ego and her delusions of grandeur are hilarious (she believes she’s receiving messages directly from the Virgin Mary). Her eccentric character is the driving force of the film and at no stage does she disappoint. She is such a pro and fully exploits the humour in her situation – her ragtag wardrobe that’s been assembled from various dumpsters and her utter hatred of music sends her fleeing whenever she hears a note. What really impressed me about her role here was her ability to subtly convey the emotional pain and desperation of the addled old woman, along with the humour. The scenes where she’s taken away by social services and gently treated to a thorough washing, feeding and medical examination are touching and sentimental. The supporting players include a number of esteemed British stage actors -Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, and a hilarious Deborah Findlay as Bennett’s posh neighbors as well as James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett who pop up in passing cameos.

    “Lady In A Van” is the third collaboration between Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner who previously worked together on both the stage and screen versions of “The Madness of King George III” and “The History Boys”. It is a most enjoyable study of two eccentric introverts who inhabit two opposite sides of the poverty line but who end up finding common ground in more ways than one. Personally it was right down my alley and I liked that it was shot in the actual house on the street, Gloucester Crescent, in London’s Camden Town and inside the actual house where the real events took place. This crowd-pleasing movie could easily slot in nicely as a Sunday evening BBC Show where I think it would be very popular. A certain demographic will be absolutely sure to book tickets and I think that if you like the sound of the film then you will love it. It doesn’t disappoint as a sweet, smart re-staging which delivers exactly what its title promises.

  • Randy

    A nice film, quite not as funny as the trailer purports it to be, but Maggie Smith shines and is excellent as the homeless lady with a very intriguing history. Very touching.