More people need to listen to Matt Foley.
During the 70’s and 80’s of London, playwright and occasional actor Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) was in desperate need of some sort of inspiration in his life. And not just for writing either – also, he was looking for a reason to love another person and not just have wild one night stands with all sorts of usual suspects from in and around the area. His inspiration comes, however, it’s in the form of a homeless woman named Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith); a smart, but quick-witted lady who, unsurprisingly, lives in her van. While Miss Shepherd starts off by living in the street of Bennett’s neighborhood, after some time, and plenty of ordinances and tickets from local law enforcement, she moves into Bennett’s driveway where she also starts to use his toilet and poke her nose into his business. This eventually leads Bennett himself to start looking into Miss Shepherd’s life, her past, and the exact reasoning for why she decided to live all by herself in a van for all of these years. Because obviously, no person in their right mind would want to live in a dirty, smelly and disgusting van for the later-part of their life, so what’s the reason? Well, Bennett looks to find out and is surprised to hear the answers when they come around.
Despite what the title may have you believe, the Lady in the Van isn’t really actually about “the lady in the van”; in fact, it’s more about the person who wrote the book and had to experience the titled-character, author Alan Bennett. And to prove this, the movie doesn’t just who the story being told from Bennett’s perspective, but also uses this awkward, unneeded plot-mechanism where instead of getting one Bennett telling the story, we get another. The reason director Nicholas Hytner uses this is to show us the two combating sides of Bennett; one of the sides, is “the writer” who constantly thinks and toggles with the idea of what to write about what happened or didn’t happen, and then, there’s “the human”, who actually does a lot of the actions he’s thinking about doing to begin with.
The only reason I discuss this and show this off, is because it’s not only annoying every time it shows up, but completely silly. Sure, we get that Bennett is a writer and is in desperate need of some great, big story to carry him through the next few years of his life, but do we really need to hear or be shown his every single, little thought that goes through his head? Can’t we just see it all play-out? Or better yet, make up our own conclusions of what’s going through his mind at said point in the story?
Of course we can, but the Lady in the Van, the movie itself, doesn’t really hold that much subtlety.
Which isn’t to say that Maggie Smith, perhaps the best thing about the Lady in the Van, truly is lovely and adorable playing said lady who lives in the van. As usual, Smith always has some sort of smart-remark to make at the expense of someone else, and allows for her keen observations to run wild, but there’s more to this character that does in fact make her interesting. We get to hear more about her past life and while none of it is as developed as it probably should have been, the movie still gives Smith plenty of chances to pick up most of the slack and do something magical with this character.
Then again, though, the movie isn’t totally about her – it’s about Bennett, his life, and his experience with this lady living in the van.
Which really, isn’t such a bad thing, because Bennett himself, as well as his relationship with the lady living in the van, is actually quite interesting. For one, the movie never makes Bennett out to be some sort of latter-day saint who took this old lady into his home, washed her, fed her, and gave her the kind of sympathy and shelter she oh so desired – instead, the movie shows him as kind of a closed-off dick who, yes, may be a bit sympathetic to her cause, but is in no way opening his arms anytime soon. But for some reason, that doesn’t sympathetic or unsympathetic, just human and it’s frustrating to see the movie constantly confuse itself with the two factors and not know what to do or say about the character.
It should also be noted that Alex Jennings is actually good in the role of Bennett, someone who may deserve a better movie than the one he’s been given here. Because even when it isn’t focusing on Bennett’s, or Miss Shepherd’s life, the movie tries hard to be cute and sweet, but also loses itself in thinking it’s too much of that, and forget to actually develop the story itself. As I said before, there’s some form of mystery surrounding Miss Shepherd and her shady, unknown past, but the movie doesn’t really go too far in detailing that anymore than just a few clues here and there; not that I minded watching Maggie Smith be grumpy to those around her, but after the eighth or ninth scene in a row of seeing that happen, it got to be a bit tiring and all of a sudden, I remembered that there was a story to be told here that, believe it or not, wasn’t actually being told.
Then again, maybe the actual story of the Lady in the Van wasn’t all that eventful to begin with. That this is a true story, it already calls into question the authenticity of what’s being presented, as well as how much actually holds up when in the court of all. After all, the true story of this whole thing could have just been that Miss Shepherd was a grumpy, old homeless woman who was, of course, smelly, but also, was mean to a lot of those around her. Whether any of them deserved it or not, the movie never really gets into, but it makes you think just if there was anything more to this woman, or her story, than where’s it at?
Or is this just it? Probably is, but oh well.
Consensus: The Lady in the Van definitely receives assistance from the fine performances of Jennings and Smith, but really, it’s messy narrative-structure and plot-devices don’t come together well enough to give them a movie worthy of their talent.
5.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire