Sometimes just having a formidable lead actor or actress can propel a film farther into being quality than it should be. We saw it happen twice in December alone, with Tom Hardy elevating Legend to be more than a formulaic British gangster film or Will Smith bringing some real presence to Concussion, a film that would have drowned in bad melodrama. In the case of the new and Golden Globe nominated film The Lady In The Van, Maggie Smith is the lightening rod that makes this film incredibly compelling and strengthens your perception of the film, despite it’s narrative gaffs.
A true story based on a book written by Alan Bennett, who is also the other lead character in the film played by Alex Jennings, it was also adapted into a stage play before getting the big screen treatment. Coincidentally, both were directed by play director and filmmaker Nicholas Hytner, a frequent collaborator and friend of Bennett’s. Hytner also directed Bennett’s stage plays of The History Boys and The Madness of King George III, as well as both film versions as well, the latter being his film directorial debut. It’s obvious that these two are a great and tight knit team.
The Lady In The Van is the embellished story of Mary Shepherd, an elderly woman who lives in a rundown van parked on the side of the street in 1970s Camden. A devout Catholic with a surly attitude that Maggie Smith is delightfully great at delivering, Mary manages to make herself both a pariah and everyone’s favorite charity case as she moves her van from parkway to parkway. Not much is known to the public about Mary, other than she used to be a nun and has a violent dislike for anyone playing or listening to music, something that is darkly alluded to in the beginning of the film, as well as the possible reason for her vagrancy. Friendless, Mary lives a solitary life.
Newly moved into the area, Alan Bennett is a stage playwright looking for a quiet home to focus on his work. Immediately he crosses paths with Mary, who quickly latches onto him, not as a friend or any sort of caregiver, although the appearances are quite deceiving in that department. The neighborhood and social workers begin to refer to him as Mary’s aide and eventually she poses the question of parking her van in Alan’s driveway for a few months to avoid her home getting towed away. Alan reluctantly concedes to this and through circumstance three months turns into fifteen years and an incredibly odd relationship between the two.
Something that came off weird to me in this film was it’s approach to storytelling, especially through the point of view of Alan Bennett. When he is introduced we see two of him and, not knowing much about the story, I thought he was possibly twins. This isn’t the case at all as one Alan represents the external Alan, the one that interacts with people and furthers the story. The other Alan is the writer who compiles the events in his life to directly adapt it into their ongoing work, which seems to be a lot of autobiographical work or at least this Alan appears to be. It came off as a bit confusing and may have damaged my final outlook on the film.
Besides Maggie Smith, who is absolutely great in this role, the supporting cast of the neighborhood community really shines in this. Roger Allam, who just played a pivotal role in A Royal Night Out, plays Rufus the homeowner from across the street who loves to brag about how big his house is and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire’s Frances de la Tour is such a sweetheart as Mrs. Williams, a passerby who lives on the street that takes a liking to and sympathy for Mary. This, plus cameos from Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Russell Tovey and a small role from Jim Broadbent as a nasty ex-cop who harrasses Mary, you have a charming little British film that will blur a lot of its faults.
These faults come as the finale of the film that can’t seem to stick a landing after some of this great character work and ends up doing a bit of a grandiose faceplant in the mud. Gone are some of the narrative rules the film sets up for itself and even with a great final moment between the two lead actors, the stench of the drastic change is unshakable. Some avenues are best left untaken and I think Hytner and Bennett may have hobbled themselves a little.
This is most certainly an older crowd pleaser and you already establish that by having Maggie Smith in the lead. As a big fan of British film already, as soon as I see BBC Films logo splash across the screen I’m immediately intrigued and with the opening being a blank screen with just sound, the intrigue of this film and Mary Shepherd’s story continues to draw you in. The story or acting will definitely not be at fault for turning anyone off during this film but maybe some of the choices in execution may leave a bad taste in your mouth. Even still, I think The Lady In The Van is well worth checking out and I give it a three out of five.