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United Kingdom 2015
Directed by
Nicholas Hytner
112 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

The Lady In The Van

Synopsis: It is the 1970s and English playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) lives a fairly cloistered life, toiling away at his craft and speaking to his alter-ego, a more adventurous and outgoing version of himself. When homeless woman Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) brings her battered van into the street where Alan lives, she ends up inveigling her way, with the van, into his driveway, where she lives for the next 15 years.

This quintessentially British tale is based upon Alan Bennett’s real life memoirs of his years in which the derelict Shepherd lived in his driveway. In many ways it’s a story that beggars belief, but as they say, truth is often stranger than fiction. Like every homeless person there’s a story to be told and the film opens hinting at Shepherd’s past, in which we see her respectably dressed, driving a van which is involved in some sort of horrendous crash, leaving blood smeared all over the windscreen. Distraught and panicked, she does a runner, and we next meet her moving her van from one upper-crust London street to another. The residents variously indulge her with unappreciated kindnesses or simply run a mile hoping the smelly, dishevelled old bird and her detritus-laden van will move on.

Simultaneously we meet Alan, who lives in the London suburb of Camden Town. The film cleverly uses an alternative version of himself to allow the audience to hear his endless internal dialogue, in which he does battle with himself over many things, including the way he takes Shepherd into his driveway and his heart as compared with his guilt-inducing treatment of his own mother (Gwen Taylor), who succumbs to dementia and ends up in an old age home.

Not a great deal of action occurs in this film; rather it is a story of compassion, internal growth for Alan, and a small insight into homelessness, tinged with good humour, some touching moments and the occasional dollop of sentimentality. Religion comes into the firing line as in the depiction of the seriously destructive effect guilt has on Shepherd.

Smith, now 81 years old, is of course the focal point of this film, and she’s lost none of her trademark manner for which she is often typecast. Her Shepherd is well-spoken, outspoken,  and constantly abrasive and cantakerous in her manner. Shepherd, we discover early on, came not from a lowly background but drove an ambulance during the war, and spent time as a nun. She also had a prodigious musical talent, the unhappy upshot of which, along with the accident shown in the film’s opening, caused her years of ongoing trauma. Alan, by comparison, seems almost compliant, an amiable non-confrontational man, who is easily swayed, a very sympathetic character, unlike his driveway squatter. British screen and stage stalwart Jim Broadbent makes a couple of brief appearances as a shady mystery man who turns up demanding money from Shepherd although this entire subplot seems unnecessary.

In some ways The Lady in the Van presents a rather anodyne version of homelessness, although the unsavoury issue of toilet requirements gets a fair run. It’s beyond my belief that a person could be so dirty yet not die of some ghastly disease, and also that another person would put up with so many confronting incidents for so many years without losing their cool. But perhaps British politeness really does extend that far. I really enjoyed the magical realism of the film’s denouement, and the glimpse of the real Alan cleverly woven into the final scene. It’s light, it’s fun, and for Maggie Smith fans, no doubt unmissable.




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