Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam
Shortly after moving to 1970s London, playwright Alan Bennett (Jennings) where he meets Miss Shepherd (Smith) a straight talking old lady who lives in her Bedford van which she drives around London and is currently parked on the road Bennett has moved to. After the local council place yellow lines on the street, she parks it on Bennett’s driveway, where it will sat for the next 16 years with the two forming an unlikely friendship.
Unfortunately we now face a cinematic era where every film starring the likes of Maggie Smith is immediately classed as a ‘grey pound’ film and is almost instantaneously heralded as the next Best Exotic Marigold Hotel without actually being judged on its own merits. While there are certainly plenty of films out there that are made with the deeply cynical sole intention of jumping onto the marigold-hotel-grey-pound bandwagon and making a cheap profit, it should also be made quite clear that some films that star these actors are far better than that simple piece of pigeon-holing.
Though the fact it is written by Alan Bennett should be enough confirmation, The Lady in the Van is most definitely far superior to a lot of the middle-of-the-road shameless and cynical crowd pleasers it is likely to be associated with. Bennett’s superb script is filled with melancholy, poignancy, catharsis and a commentary on the process of creative writing. This combination is however presented with a deep intelligence and more than a bittersweet tone by Bennett, to produce a film that is engaging and emotionally satisfying on numerous levels.
Holding the whole thing together are two superb performances; the role of Miss Shepherd is certainly one that on the surface sounds similar to her other recent roles, and though it is, Maggie Smith brings an effortless extra level to her character that perfectly brings out the emotional depth of Bennett’s screenplay and the themes it examines when telling her character’s backstory. She is certainly difficult to like at first, but thanks to the performances and great script, becomes an increasingly engaging and sympathetic character.
The backstories of characters are often only as interesting as how well they are presented, and the gradual revelations about Miss Shepherd’s past make for engaging and often quite haunting viewing. Though some elements of her backstory are a little unique, others ae very easy to relate to, only increasing narrative engagement. Bennett skilfully avoids over emphasising any of his script’s themes, leaving just enough gaps for the audience to interpret and fill in, making the whole experience infinitely more rewarding and emotionally involving, despite the occasional convenient contrivance.
Despite Maggie Smith’s character being the film’s title, the character of Alan Bennet is equally important to the narrative, and as Bennett Alex Jennings is exceptional, providing a likeable and funny portrayal of Bennett. One of the themes of the narrative is the process of storytelling, especially the process of turning true life experiences into books, plays or films and this is often explored by having two Alan Bennetts on screen. When a film (or indeed any story telling medium) portrays this level of self-awareness and self-examination there is always a huge risk of the whole story entering the territory of self-indulgence or narrative laziness (Seven Psychopaths is a recent example that immediately comes to mind that slightly failed to avoid laziness). However Bennett is far to intelligent to even risk falling into this trap and it only adds another layer to the film that provides many moments of great humour and thought provoking discussion.
While the film version of The History Boys did not admittedly translate that well to the screen and often struggled to shrug off the fact it was a play (brief cameos from the entire cast in this film also add to the fun), this time director Nicholas Hytner makes sure that The Woman in the Van does feel genuinely cinematic. It is very well shot and visually captures the appropriate sense of time and place, as well as there also being plenty of great visual gags (often involving shit – but in a classy, English way!).
Due to the inevitable pigeon holing caused by having Maggie Smith in the leading role, many may overlook The Lady in the Van, but this is an extremely well written, made and acted film of deep intelligence. It takes on many moving themes and ideas, and these are dealt with by the narrative with a suitably subtle humour and poignancy to create a thoroughly engaging and emotionally satisfying experience.
A film that is far, far more than the ‘grey pound’ tag that it is going to inevitably be labelled with; The Lady in the Van is a fiercely intelligent, engaging and emotionally satisfying drama (with a sprinkle of classy and subtle English humour thrown in).