“I am a very sick woman! Dying, possibly.” The Lady in the Van is not a sequel to Lady in the Water, and neither to Under the Skin.
Maggie Smith performs in a largely true story about a mysterious old woman, Miss Shepherd, who has been living in a van on someone’s driveway in London. Out of security reasons she is allowed to park her van on the driveway of the screenwriter Alan Bennett, where she stays for the next 15 years. Bennett adapts himself to her presence, but as the years go by, Miss Shepherd becomes a fixed part of his life. He writes a theatre play to honour her story.
The Lady in the Van is a very British film, with some British comedy and a fine selection of older British dramatic actors, and especially with a very British idea of decency. In the neat, orderly British world, people quickly stand out if they behave differently. And when someone like Miss Shepherd upsets the social order, well, that’s just unheard of. The inhabitants of the neighborhood try to chase her away in civilized ways, such as by upsetting her with music. But the British decency can adapt to anything, whether we talk about a talking bear in Paddington or a cranky old woman in The Lady in the Van, and in the end everything works out.
It may not be a coincidence that this British sensibility is so strong once you realize that the director, Nicholas Hytner, has been knighted by the Queen for his services to British stage drama. Together with writer Alan Bennett they are a successful theatre team that occasionally works on movies. Bennett wrote himself into The Lady in the Van as the poor guy who accepts Miss Shepherd on his driveway, for the shocking fact that it actually happened to him. He doesn’t act the role himself, but leaves that to Alex Jennings. As a drifting woman you must have the good fortune to end up living on the driveway of a celebrated screenwriter.
The great Maggie Smith, who just received a Golden Globe nomination for her role, does what she does best. Smith, 81 years old now, has been looking 80 years old for the last 30 years, and has been playing respectable grandmas since Hook, 25 years ago. Although her legs aren’t what they used to be, she still has the energy to nail a role. Her Miss Shepherd is far from respectable, though, but throughout the movie there are hints about a tragic past that caused her crankiness. Smith portrays her as eccentric and taken by her own stories. She’s funny, pitiful and intriguing to the screenwriter. Smith has a very expressive face on which all her emotions are writ large, and her acting is solid as iron. There is also a nice role by Jim Broadbent, who has been genetically blessed with a very comical face but plays a dark role here.
Alan Bennett is just as much a leading character in the movie as Miss Shepherd. Alex Jennings plays two versions of the screenwriter, because Bennett says that he often talks to himself and is in two minds about things. So, the film splits him up, literally. One version talks to Miss Shepherd and the other writes everything down, and sometimes the two argue. It is an odd surrealistic addition to the movie and is out of tone. It also makes the film needlessly confusing at some points. Jennings’s portrayal as a weak, whiny man also gets on my nerves and is the weakest element of the film, because it is hard to personify with him.
Conclusion. The Lady in the Van is a treatise on the mystery of people’s life stories. Miss Shepherd’s story is sad and lost in the depths of time, and Bennett’s story is about how life sneaks up on you while you actually feel like you’re just marking time. The film is certainly worth watching; it is comical, tragic and with some fine acting.