Synopsis: A man forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman living in her car that’s parked in his driveway.
Release Date: January 22, 2016 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Biography, Comedy
As a title card at the beginning of the movie tells us, The Lady in the Van is “A Mostly True Story” about an elderly homeless lady named Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith from “Downton Abbey”) who lives in a van, moving it from spot to spot on the street to keep it from being ticketed or impounded. She becomes a fixture in the neighborhood, with all of the residents chipping in to make her life a little easier – as long as she is not camped out right in front of their house for too long. When the city cracks down on street parking, a timid writer named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings from “Silk”) offers to let Miss Shepherd move her van into his driveway for a few months while she figures out where to go – and it stays there, with her inside, for fifteen years. The Lady in the Van is a document of the relationship between the benevolent Alan and the manipulative Miss Shepherd.
The actual story behind The Lady in the Van is more interesting than the movie itself. The script is derived from a stage play that was adapted from a memoir, all written by the real author/playwright Alan Bennett. Like the movie says, the story is “mostly true” – Miss Shepherd was a real woman who lived in a dilapidated van outside of Bennett’s home. The movie was shot on the actual street, in the house, and in the driveway where the events actually occurred. The film itself represents a reunion of sorts, as Maggie Smith portrayed Miss Shepherd in the London theatrical production, and director Nicholas Hytner has been Bennett’s go-to guy for movie adaptations in the past, having turned both his The Madness of King George and his The History Boys into feature films. A neighbor of Bennett’s long before he was a collaborator, Hytner remembered the van being parked in front of the writer’s home in the 1980s, so The Lady in the Van is a bit like the relationship between Bennett and Hytner coming full circle.
As intriguing as the premise and real-life making-of story sound, the movie is hit-and-miss. The performances are cinematic gold, with the highlight being the caustic chemistry between Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. The story is just as much about Alan as it is about Miss Shepherd; the obvious arc belongs to the misunderstood old lady living in the van, but the film spends just as much time on Alan and his process of observation and documentation of his experience as it does on the experience itself. Unfortunately for The Lady in the Van, many of the monologues and dialogues don’t translate well from stage to screen. There are long dry stretches of the film that are slow at best, downright tedious at worst. The hour-and-forty five minute narrative could probably have been snipped to about a half hour without effectively losing anything noticeable. It’s the type of story that was probably more fun to have lived through than it is to watch onscreen.
In the end, The Lady in the Van is essentially a good cast stuck in a mediocre movie, and the talented actors can only do so much with it. There are people who will find the movie entertaining, and even some that will find it charming, but for the most part, The Lady in the Van is a snoozer.
Although The Lady in the Van is classified as a comedy, it’s not incredibly funny. It’s chock-full of that dry British-style humor that is not really understood by many Americans (this reviewer included). It’s mostly deprecating or insulting verbal sparring with just a splash of physical comedy tossed in, but none of it is particularly uproarious. The funniest aspect of the film is watching how the neighborhood residents deal with the rude elderly lady who is taking advantage of their kindness – the neighbors are so over-the-top nice and pleasant about the entire situation that it becomes comic in its absurdity. But the laughs are more from discomfort and awkwardness than they are from actual humor. Again, maybe on the other side of the pond, The Lady in the Van is hilarious, but here, it’s just mildly amusing.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Nicholas Hytner
- Producer(s): Nicholas HytnerDamian JonesKevin Loader
- Screenwriter(s): Alan Bennett
- Cast: Maggie Smith (Miss Shepherd)Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett)Jim Broadbent (Underwood) Deborah Findlay (Pauline)Roger Allam (Rufus)Richard Griffiths (Sam Perry)Pandora Colin (Fiona Perry)Nicholas Burns (Giles Perry)Tom Klenerman (Tom Perry)Dominic Cooper (Actor)
- Editor(s): Tariq Anwar
- Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer: Natalie Ward
- Casting Director(s): Toby Whale
- Music Score: George Fenton
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: UK