MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Lady In The Van’ Pulls Out Of First Gear, Thanks To Maggie Smith

the lady in the van

Film: The Lady In The Van
Directed By: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings

Saccharine messages like “sometimes in life, you need a helping hand” litter the feel-good true stories we see gracing the cinema every so often. What those “feel-good” stories tend to do is err to the side of dramatic sop or end up being too cheery to land any intended poignancy. The Lady In The Van pulls off the admirable feat of avoiding those two pitfalls by drumming up a humorous story about authorial intent and weaving that “feel-good,” rhythmic fluff through the loose structure. It also helps that actress Maggie Smith is the one to deliver such fluff.

Playwright Alan Bennett (played here by Alex Jennings) housed the local cantankerous vagabond by the name of Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) during the years of 1974-1989 at his home in London, England. After striking up an odd friendship with Shepherd, Bennett finally caves and lets her park her decrepit old van in his yard after his neighbors deny her shelter. What he doesn’t know is the emotional toll her living in his driveway will have. The further he looks into Miss Shepherd’s past, the more is revealed about how Shepherd came to be such a sour, hard-nosed woman.

That thing I mentioned about authorial intent? What I mean by that is the whole movie is based on a “mostly true” story. It’s actually all based on the hit play written by Bennett, so things rarely take a turn for the “real” or “true.” Bennett constantly twists and turns the story to fit his own narrative. This may seem like a cheap ploy, but Bennett’s personality ends up splitting in two as the question between if he should write or not write about Miss Shepherd takes a hold of his life. One side of the personality being the one who writes, and the other side being the one who actually “lives”—whatever that is. Although the film never decides to argue why writing and living are one in the same, the reasoning behind the split personality gets wrapped up understandably, albeit a bit daft.

In a film like this, the performances are called upon to anchor whatever emotional core the story has. And here, they do that tenfold. Maggie Smith is a minor revelation as Miss Shepherd, a character she also played on stage in the real-life play. It’s evident here that Smith knows the role like it’s her own life, because it feels so lived-in without the fatigue one could garner from playing a character too many times. She’s the perfect fit for someone weathered by the years who doesn’t dip into totally unlikable territory.

Having not been familiar with Alex Jennings’ other work, his performance in this came off a bit too twee for my taste. As the story starts unveiling his deep neurosis with living alone, everything became much less laborious to listen to. The whole split personality gag works for a while before feeling tired and pointless. Luckily, director Nicholas Hytner understands that and fills the third act with actual revelations about Shepherd’s past life. Jennings and Smith shine when they’re called upon to work through emotions tired in other films like this. There’s an earnest core to their work, no matter how cruel the story may get.

The Lady In The Van is a two-person showcase dealing with cutesy themes like overcoming one’s flaws to do something truly good in life. Here though, it’s not done in a cutesy manner. See it for Smith’s performance, stay for the genuine twists on a tired and old tale of friendship despite warring personalities.

GRADE: B

The Lady in the Van opens at AMC Boston Common and the Landmark Kendall Square on Friday, January 29.

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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