THE LADY IN THE VAN (UK 2015) ***1/2
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Review by Gilbert Seah
There are several reasons to watch the new Maggie Smith, Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennette collaboration of THE LADY IN THE VAN. For one, it is based mostly on a true story – the words that appear on the screen at the film’s start, signifying a modest comedy on life. And with an equally number of pleasures as well to be derived from the film.
Adapted from the based-on-fact hit West End play by Bennett (best known for THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE), the film’s title referring to a high-born homeless woman, known as Miss Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) fallen on hard times who finds temporary shelter parking her van in Bennett’s driveway — for fifteen years. It is a chronicle of the unlikely friendship between the writer (played by Alex Jennings) and the elderly eccentric who takes over his driveway.
The play and script is smart enough to have two protagonists – Miss Shepherd and Bennett. Bennett is seen as a double in the film. As explained – there is the man that writes and the one that lives. They speak to one another, the equivalent of the man talking to himself. He gives himself a perspective of his life, humorously as well as dramatically. He is a timid fellow, kind enough to look after his ailing mother as well as Miss Shepherd. In contrast, Miss Shepherd is ornery, impolite, and bullying Not all there, she claims to take advice from the Virgin Mary. And she smells bad. There is a mystery about the woman that is kept from Bennett and the audience but all is revealed by the end of the film. But Bennett, despite his very private nature, takes pity on her and says she can stay there for three months.
Miss Shepherd is seen to be one that hates music. She screams and scares away children that play music outside her van. But she has studied music in Paris and plays the piano. The reason for her current behaviour is an intriguing one, and one that Hytner uses to full effect.
But besides being a film about friendship and old age, it is mostly a film about life. The film depicts the bit seedy yet very respectable London neighbourhood of Camden Town (on the Northern Tube line). (I am proud to say I have lived there – though as a tourist and guest for 15 days and the film brings a good effective feel in of neighbourhood chivalry and friendliness.) The message about life in the film is an obvious one, though one mostly ignored. It is stated clearly at the end – to love life is to start living. It is, put subtly, in the writing of Bennett’s character – that he is not to put himself in the writing but to find himself in the writing.
Maggie Smith bares all in the film and she is not afraid of looking old, haggard and ugly for the role. It is a completely different role from her Oscar winning THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. She would get my vote for her second Oscar.
THE LADY IN A VAN is a tale of life, playfully funny and authentically set in Camden Town, London. Great performances in a film relatively well directed from a clever script full of ripe dialogue.