The Lady in the Van
Starring Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Gwen Taylor, Frances de la Tour
The year of the senior actress continues with Dame Maggie Smith (Harry Potter, Gosford Park) reprising her stage character on the big screen. Based on writer Alan Bennett’s own experience with a lady who lived in a van outside his house for over 15 years, this comedic drama gives 80-year-old Smith another opportunity to show off her seemingly endless talent. The film adaptation is getting rave reviews locally in London, as Smith throws her hat in the crowded race of over 65 actresses looking for an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately Smith’s rather unsavory character beside Jennings distant portrayal of Smith doesn’t provide the audience with much to enjoy.
Based on a “mostly true story”, Alan Bennett (Jennings) who is new to the Camden neighborhood shows kindness towards a traveling homeless lady who lives in a van. Ms. Shephard (Smith) she calls herself, although her real name is quite a guessing game, as is much of the information about her. She explains to Alan that the Virgin Mary told her to park her bright yellow van by his house. Eventually the local playwright, offers the stinky, smelly and overall dirty Ms. Shephard his empty driveway so he doesn’t have to worry about her on the street. For 15 years she lives in the back of the van telling everyone she is disabled and dying when anyone speaks negatively about her. He begins writing about the mysterious lady in the van to perhaps use one day in a story.
The film would have been more effective fully embracing this role as a performance vehicle for Smith, rather than scripting it like a hollow film.
Cantankerous doesn’t even begin to describe the musings of Ms. Shephard, so much that American audiences might be annoyed to the point of disapproval. Often as the film plays out I found myself just wanting to shove the ungrateful, delirious woman in a home and hear more about supporting characters like Frances de la Tour’s nosey neighbor Ursula Vaughan Williams. What Charlie Kaufman did in writing dual roles/personalities of himself in Adaptation felt like inspired writing, here the duality of Alan on screen doesn’t work for me as well as I am sure it did on stage. However it’s Alan that we eventually come to care more about than the lady who defecates in plastic bags and then sticks them underneath the van.
“I have to shout because of your ignorance,” Ms. Shephard says in one of the only argumentative scenes. Much of the film has Alan and the lady separated in scenes only reacting to each other via a window or from across the street. The film would have been more effective fully embracing this role as a performance vehicle for Smith, rather than scripting it like a hollow film. There are certainly some funny scenes as Alan in all his posture and talent, reacts to Ms. Shephard’s behavior. The Lady in the Van never finds an emotional beat, whether its Alan forced to put his ailing mother in a home, or the sympathy he has for his driveway nuisance.
Smith’s nearly despicable performance as the title character is barely enough to keep you engaged.