THE LADY IN THE VAN – A Review By Gary Murray




By: Gary Murray

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings and Jim Broadbent

Written by: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Running time: 104 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Selig Film Rating: Matinee


British comedy takes many forms from romantic love stories to the raunchy/bawdy flicks. While the United Kingdom has a very strong and varied film industry, it only seems that the cream of the crop makes it way across the ocean and onto our shores.  The latest to deliver the masses from the cold streets to the warm hearth of the theater is The Lady in the Van.

Before the film starts, we are informed that this is a mostly true story.  It makes the audience wonder what is real and what comes from the mind of the screenwriter.  Then, there is a squealing of tires and a dead thud.  A woman is seen driving off, with a red splatter on the shattered windshield.  A policeman Underwood (Jim Broadbent) follows but eventually loses his suspect.

The story takes place in a slightly upper middle class area in London.  Alan (Alex Jennings) is a play writer who has recently purchased a house in the area.  It is the kind of neighborhood that has professionals getting houses they can barely afford but need as a status symbol.

Almost immediately Alan notices a woman Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) who lives in a van with a shattered front window.  Although the neighbors view her as a homeless person, she views herself as an independent business woman.  She sells pencils on the sidewalk.   Alan strikes up a conversation with her and she is abrupt with him.  She may be old but her mind is a firecracker.

The well-meaning neighbors try to tolerate her as a temporary nuisance, guessing she will eventually drive her van to another part of town.  But, the van breaks down and will not drive.  The city gives her a notice to move the vehicle or it will be towed away.  Alan finds out about her plight and suggests that she move the van into his unused parking spot.  She reluctantly agrees.

Eventually Alan finds out what a burden he has taken on.  She tells him that it will only be a few months, until she can get her finances together.  It becomes a fifteen year-long test of patience.  Along the way, Alan tries to get her help from government social services, a help that she will not accept.

In the years that she lives in his drive, they become more comfortable with the arrangement.  In wanting to help her and sifting through her stories, he begins to become a detective about the life of his very close neighbor.  She claims that she was a pianist and was a nun.  These clues drive Alan to various parts of town, trying to find any connection to the real world and to anyone who can help her.  The film is truly about discovery of an individual and what a rich life one can lead.

We are shown the writer in two different personas done with a split screen.  One is the man who pens the world and the other is the one who lives his life.  He discusses Miss Shepard between the two men, arguing different points of humanity.  It is a brilliant bit of acting done by Alex Jennings and a clever way to show the thought process.  The audience never questions that the two sides of the persona are not two different characters.  It is temperaments but are acted by the same man.

Maggie Smith is perfect in the role of Miss Shepard.  She can be bitter and charming at the same time.  We see her rant against any played music and the reason she acts that way.  Every element of her personality becomes a layer to be peeled off, showing yet another deeper layer of her fractured personality.  By the time the audience gets to the end, there is a much better understanding of how a person has to deal with challenging aspects of living and how they become a life.

The film is written by Alan Bennett and is based on his memoir.  There is a strong connection between the written word and how it is presented on the screen.  At times, it feels as if we are watching a documentary and not a work of fiction.  Directed by Nicholas Hytner, there is real warmth put on the celluloid.  We believe in the two people shown on the screen and never question that they are actors.  It is a true brilliance of the printed word put on the screen and the talent of the actors delivering that printed word.  And London has seldom been photographed with such loving care.

Truly the only problem with the film is that it is very British.  There are some jokes that only the people who live there will get but a wider worldwide audience will not understand.  While the film ran, there are pauses for laughter that the American audience did not give it.  The set-ups were definitely of British popular culture that did not translate well.  But the utter charm of the work overshadows any trifling concern.

The Lady in the Van is being opened in the art house circuit.  That is a shame.  It deserves to be seen by a larger audience.  It is one of my favorite flicks to open in the dead of winter, a film that should warm the hearts of those looking for a pre-Valentine’s Day spark. 

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