07 April 2016

The Lady in the Van (starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings)

I had seen mixed reviews on this film, and the DVD price was such that I didn’t want to add it to my wishlist yet, not sure if I would like it. On the other hand, anything that stars Maggie Smith is likely to be worth seeing, and my father has a copy, so when I was staying with him for a few days, he suggested we see it.

The ‘mostly true’ story is about the writer Alan Bennett, played as two separate halves of his character, by Alex Jennings. He lives in a quiet street in London, and meets the eccentric, elderly Miss Fairchild who lives in a van. She smells bad, she is ungrateful and rude, and she is clearly saddled with enormous guilt for something in her past.

Alan invites her to park her van on his driveway for a month or two, until she has decided where to live next… and stays there for fifteen years. During that time he becomes more and more frustrated with her, but can’t bring himself to turn her out. The film is about their relationship with its ups and downs, and while there are parts that are fictionalised, the basic plot is true.

I haven’t read the book, and am not sure I want to: while I usually like books better than films, I can’t believe that any prose could match up to Maggie Smith’s flawless performance. The direction, too, was excellent. Having two Alan Bennetts - one who writes, one who lives - works brilliantly. We gradually learn more and more about Miss Shepherd’s varied life and career - she is not a school drop-out or from an impoverished family, but once had a stunning career, and then spent some time as a nun, attempting to quell her personal ambitions and loves.

While the story itself is not all that riveting, Maggie Smith is wonderful and Alex Jennings makes an excellent foil. There were a few places when I almost laughed aloud, but most of the story is bittersweet, portraying realistically the oddly liberal attitudes of the 1970s, the harshness of some Catholic institutions, and the plight of the homeless.

Alongside the main story is a subplot about the tragedy of dementia. This is not related to Miss Shepherd, despite being bizarrely eccentric with some delusions of grandeur, but in the author’s own mother.

The ending could have been depressing, although inevitable, but reveals the last of the puzzles in the story, and ends in a surreal scene that, somehow, despite the ‘mostly true’ story, seems appropriate in its oddity.

Rated 12 (PG-13 in the US) and I think that’s about right. There are a couple of instances of ‘strong’ language, and several mild ones, and one unpleasantly gory (albeit brief) scene at the end, but nothing else that would be unsuitable for children, although I can’t imagine it would hold the interest of anyone under the age of about 15 or so. There are implications about Alan's lifestyle, but it took me about half the film to realise what was going on; there's nothing explicit, and nothing that most children would notice.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's DVD Reviews

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