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The Lady In The Van Review


Based on Alan Bennett’s successful memoir, which he also turned into a stage play, the film version of The Lady In The Van has driven its dilapidated yellow van into the driveway of your local cinema and like its tenant it may not be the type of film you were looking for but its humour, wit and heart will take you along for the ride.

Maggie Smith is astoundingly good here. Reprising her role from the stage, she is truly magnificent as Miss Shepherd, the homeless woman with a dark past that finds herself living in the back of her little van on a well-to-do street in Camden in the 1970’s. Based on a “mostly true story”, Bennett did indeed allow ‘the lady in the van’ to park and essentially live in the driveway of his home in what was to be a temporary fix and ended up being 15 years.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner who previously collaborated with Bennett on The Madness of King George and The History Boys, the films origins of the stage are quite obvious with most of the action taking place in and around Bennett’s house and garden. There are funny quirks to it. Bennett’s bewildered writer (here played by Alex Jennings) is split from the more straight thinking half of him, so that we get two versions of him when he’s at home, like twins. It’s a nice device that helps us to see his anguish and thought process when it comes to his dilemma over Miss Shepherd. He also narrates the story, peppering it with witty insights like the sound of the handbrake being pulled the day she parked her van in his drive “like Excalibur” never to be raised again.  

Amid the comedy though is a dark streak on the cruelty of life. It doesn’t shy away from the loss of dignity homeless people face, right down to their daily bodily functions and lack of clean water and also highlights that it can only take one bad event to happen in a person’s life to see them homeless. The film also addresses the care of the elderly and the irony is not lost on Bennett that he would allow Miss Shepherd to live in his drive but not invite his own mother to live with him, even when she’s infirm.

As a two-hander Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings are perfectly pitched against each other. Smith’s initially cantankerous, rude old lady really gets to you as her vulnerabilities surface and you can’t help but feel for her, conducting herself as she does with a “vagabond nobility”. She is a social outcast and so too is Bennett, hiding his homosexuality under cover of darkness for fear of discovery.

While The Lady In The Van is very enjoyable, there is though a feeling of Sunday night drama about it that perhaps would see it sit well on TV and a scene at the end stretches the narration device just a little too far. It’s a perfectly nice, entertaining way to spend an afternoon, it just feels perhaps a little small compared to the usual cinema fare.



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The Movie Bit: The Lady In The Van Review
The Lady In The Van Review
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