Director Nicholas Hytner doesn’t quite do Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van justice, despite some stellar work from the delightfully cantankerous Maggie Smith.
⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme Drury
Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1989 novel The Lady in the Van has been adapted on numerous occasions since its publication, from award-winning theatre productions in London’s West End, to radio plays on the BBC. Now, 25 years on, The Lady in the Van arrives on cinema screens starring the same actress that brought the eccentric lead character to life on stage, Dame Maggie Smith, as well as an all-star cast of British actors and comedians.
Set in the leafy London suburb of Camden Town, The Lady in the Van is an autobiographical recount of Bennett’s association with a homeless elderly woman, Miss Shepard (Smith), who invites herself to live on his driveway from a rusty and dilapidated old van. Spanning more than 15 years, Bennett (here played by English stage actor Alex Jennings) and Miss Shepard develop an unconventional friendship despite the disapproving gazes of their snooty neighbours.
Bennett’s loyal adaptation (he pens the screenplay himself) manages to uphold his trademark feel of snarky British wit and depreciating humour. Smith is in her element as the bedraggled and bug-eyed old woman who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of her. Naturally there are details to her past that Miss Shepard strives to keep a secret, and this resentment and shame is etched into Smith’s face in every frame.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jennings’ performance as the vexing playwright who takes Miss Shepard under his wing. Bennett’s inner monologue is depicted as a separate persona, also played by Jennings, and we learn a lot about his strained friendship and character via this unique and clever technique. However, the film rarely breaks to examine Bennett himself, choosing to focus almost entirely on Shepard. We see the story play out through his bespectacled eyes as Jennings stares wistfully out the French windows of his pokey London townhouse, all the while interesting aspects to his character gently waft away.
Also, much like the immovable vessel in which Sheperd lives, the plot goes literally nowhere. For all its peculiar characters and thematic exploration of aging, The Lady in the Van is disappointingly bereft of forward narrative motion. Events are dotted here and there to demonstrate the passage of time, but the characters remain oddly unchanged throughout the 20-year narrative.
Even Jim Broadbent is dealt a rough hand; he plays Underwood, a sinister figure from Shepard’s past that comes a-knocking every so often to collect payment. The reasons behind this are left a mystery, until a wholly unsatisfying and rushed explanation in the final 10 minutes sweeps the entire subplot under the rug.
It isn’t without merit, but The Lady in the Van is a disappointingly aimless attempt at examining themes such as living with guilt, empathy and growing old. Smith is an irritable delight, but the meandering plot left me cold.
The Lady In The Van is available in Australian cinemas from March 3rd
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing