The Lady in the Van

Feb 22, 2016

An eccentric  character played by an accomplished actress.

The Lady in the Van

Image provided by IMDb.

Grade: B

Director: Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys)

Screenplay: Alan Bennett (The History Boys)

Cast:  Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Jim Broadbent (The Crying Game)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 1 hr 44 min.

by John DeSando

“Writing is talking to oneself.” Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings)

In The Lady in the Van, Alan Bennett does exactly that, talk to his other self (The worldly him as opposed to the writer) as he tries to figure a way to write about the lady who has lived in a van in his driveway on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, London, for 15 years.

In this “mostly true film,” the more interesting character than the unsentimental lady, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), is the timid bachelor Bennett, who gives away little about himself except through a voice-over narration, which itself is spare enough. Ostensibly, the main character is Shepherd, who exiles herself into this driveway some time after a life-changing moment in her van on the road.

Although she is not nearly as eccentric or verbal as I’d have liked (much more so in the London West End play I saw years ago), she has moments of cantankerousness and wit, enough to craft a memorable character made to order for a prolific and witty playwright like Bennett. Here’s an example of his word craft:

Rufus (Roger Allam): “Sorry, you can't park here.”

Miss Shepherd: “No, I've had guidance. This is where it should go.”

Rufus: “Guidance? Who from?”

Miss Shepherd: “The Virgin Mary. I spoke to her yesterday. She was outside the post office.” (Read The History Boys if you’d like another fine example of his creative dialogue).

Although most of the audience is familiar with Ms. Smith’s regal work as a Countess in TV’s Downton Abbey, and may have missed one of her two Oscar-winning performances, they will not forget the 80-year-old’s performance here. As spotty as the dialogue is, her physical appearance in a dirty oversized man’s coat with patches of tape and stains is a fine metaphor for her fragmented and ebbing life.

Bennett’s recognition that she taught him to do more with his life (there’s a rich back story for Shepherd) is consistent with a brilliant but sedentary writer most alive creating alive characters like Shepherd.  

“In life, going downhill is an uphill job.” Bennett doesn’t always write winning lines but he does have the knack for character creation.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at