A man forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman living in her car that’s parked in his driveway.
‘The Lady in the Van’ is an entertaining comedy drama that lives and dies by a powerhouse performance from Maggie Smith. Maggie Smith is a national treasure and she’s perfectly cast here as Miss Shepherd, a bigoted, cantankerous old lady who lives in a van and decides to take up residence in a nice part of Camden. Most of the residents disapprove but local playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) pities her and ends up forming an unlikely bond with her. The film gets a lot of mileage out of the attitude of many Londoners, in that they want to be seen to care about those less fortunate without actually doing anything about it themselves (the character Roger Allam plays is a good representation of this). With that being said, Miss Shepherd is a particularly unpleasant character who is amusing to the audience but I’d imagine less so to those around her!
The film is based on Alan Bennett’s mostly true (as the opening credits state) novel, which was turned into a play which also starred Maggie Smith in the main role. Smith reprises her role here, with Alex Jennings taking on the role of Bennett, playing him in dual personas, with one designed to depict the actual happenings and one designed to depict the writing process. Jennings is good in the role and provides a good straight man foil for Smith to take over the screen. Smith is hilarious throughout, but as we’ve come to expect from her, she also excels when the script hits some sombre notes. It’s clear the film has been adapted from a play and it doesn’t truly escape those shackles with the narrative feeling light at times and some minor subplots not really going anywhere. It does also mean that when director Nicholas Hytner goes for a couple of more cinematic flourishes it feels slighty jarring, particularly in the way the conclusion is designed and shot.
‘The Lady in the Van’ is at its best when it focuses on the light hearted and comical aspects of an eccentric homeless women deciding to live in a fairly well off London borough, with Smith’s performance and the disgust of some of the local residents (including Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour) particularly enjoyable. When it delves into Bennett’s writing process or Miss Shepherd’s past too much it loses momentum and it isn’t nearly as interesting, despite these segments being designed for the film to strive for more depth. This is one of those films that does exactly what it says on the tin and if you like Maggie Smith you’re likely to get enjoyment out of watching this film.
Directed By: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Taylor, Claire Foy, Dominic Cooper and James Corden