Director: Nicholas Hytner
Run Time: 1h 44m
Seriously. If Dame Maggie Smith asks to live in my driveway…I hand her the keys to my house and commence with Roomie Status.
Miss Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) has a past she would soon forget. Believing she must seek penance, she has been living in a beat up van for many years. One day she happens to meet writer, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings). Alan is a quiet fellow who falls into Miss Shepherd’s trap quite easily. They form a pseudo-friendship (in which they merely tolerate each other outwardly) and she comes to park her van in his driveway. The more time they spend together — 15 years to be exact — the stronger their friendship becomes, even though Alan still has much to learn about this mysterious homeless woman and the past she is hiding from.
The Lady in the Van is a comedy that is mostly pleasant, interspersed with some boring bits. I quite enjoyed this film, but it had everything to do with Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. The acting is the driving force here.
Maggie Smith has a natural comedic air in everything she does. She can deliver witty lines, yes. But she can also say everything with just a look or subtle gesture. Miss Shepherd is a sassy, crabby, guilt-stricken, British woman of faith…and Maggie embraces the character wonderfully. There’s so much going on with this woman when everyone else only sees her grubby clothes and crappy van. It’s when the audience gets to spend time with her that we see the complexities that are buried deep inside. The Dame is absolutely amazing.
Alex Jennings was actually tasked with playing two characters: writer/narrator Alan Bennett, and the Alan Bennett among us. The writer is colder, guarded, and judgmental. The worldly Alan Bennett is kinder, gentle, and — as Miss Shepherd realizes — a push-over. The two personalities are expressed as two separate characters and Alex Jennings plays both. He often talks to himself and you can easily spot the difference between who is who. Jennings carries himself differently and has more stern facial expressions when speaking as his writer personality. It’s the acting between the lines that made me really appreciate Jennings’ performance just as much as Smith’s.
The story is an interesting one. It’s based on a true story from the memoirs of the real Alan Bennett that was later made into a play (in which Maggie Smith also played Miss Shepherd). Alan Bennett is credited with writing the film adaptation and even makes a cameo towards the end. There were a few things that were obviously changed in the name of humor or flow, but for the most part the happenings we see here are true to the events that the real Alan and Miss Shepherd lived back in the 1970s. Things would sometimes come to a slow crawl and the minutes would creep by. Then a joke or a quip would snap things back into motion and we’d be off again.
I think the choice to have a theater director at the helm of the film adaptation was a smart one. Nicholas Hytner has directed films, but his resume boasts several theater directing credits as well. Using someone with a background in both worlds made it feel quaint and intimate. It transferred well from stage to screen.
This film is filled with British humor brought to life by two extremely talented actors. If you’re a fan of any of the above you’ll enjoy The Lady in the Van. If you don’t mind the prices of movie tickets, it’s safe to visit the theater for this one. Otherwise, make sure you rent it when it comes available.
In 2014 I watched Maggie Smith intrude on another man who refused to vacate his home. In My Old Lady the Dame sort of came with the house that Kevin Kline’s character inherited.