The Lady in the Van
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
The true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and the singular Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years.
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★★★★ review by Mark Cunliffe on Letterboxd
I took my mother to see The Lady In The Van. On leaving the cinema, her first remark was,
"I didn't know Alan Bennett was gay?"
It's a naive enough remark, but she then went one better by adding
"I thought the men coming round the house were doing jobs for him?"
It's the kind of maternal comment that Bennett has made a career from. But if that means my mum has now become an 'Alan Bennett Mother', what does that make me?
Fans of the National Treasure himself will lap this up, after all it has Bennett's wonderful dialogue and sly, deadpan humour and there's the familiarity of having it directed by his long time NT collaborator Nicholas Hytner. There's also the simply marvellous cast, with cameos from The History Boys alumni, alongside the likes of Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Jim Broadbent, Gwen Taylor and the lovely Claire Foy in more substantial roles, topped by two (or is that three?) superlative performances; Maggie Smith as the titular character, Miss Shepherd, and Alex Jennings as Bennett himself - both Bennett, the writer and Bennett, the man living through the experience of having this demented old dear taking up residency on his drive. Smith is, of course, genius and in describing her performance I can only reiterate the phrase Danny Leigh used in last week's Film 2015 review "Miss Marple meets Gollum" - there is no finer description. But Jennings deserves an equal amount of the accolades here, skilfully crafting a three dimensional interpretation of Bennett rather than offering up an impression or imitation for 100 minutes.
This is a very enjoyable film, comic and deeply tender as it explores Bennett's difficult relationship with both his ailing mother (Taylor) and his surrogate mother, Miss Shepherd. It's not perfect - I would argue that it's a shame the film couldn't find in its heart a way to end on a sincere note, opting instead for some rather jarring grand comedic gesture, whilst some of the characters (specifically those created for narrative purposes like Broadbent's somewhat panto villain) seem to offer little more than a walk on for a famous face like an old Morecambe and Wise sketch - but I think it's important to remember that, fifteen years of squatting on your doorstep or not, Bennett's tale is a very slight one as witnessed by the slender tome it started life out as. Ultimately, Hytner has delivered an enjoyable film that shows in Smith that the grand dame of British acting is in extremely rude health.
★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
I first saw a trailer for this in February - yes, February - so it's surprising to go into it a month after it's been released and find it still has plenty to surprise. The trailers gave no hint of the almost magical-realist elements, for example, not even the key device of doubling Alan Bennett into a Bennett who writes and a Bennett who interacts with the outside world. As per Freud and Borges, doubles are always uncanny, but there's something particularly unnerving about seeing a double of a famous person. Perhaps it makes us confront the fact that their images are duplicated all the time in the media, but seeing Alex Jennings as Bennett standing next to another Jennings-Bennett had the same creepy-funny charge as the room full of Malkoviches in Being John Malkovich, or the mysterious doubles of Bart and Lisa at the end of the Simpsons episode 'The Day the Violence Died'.
For ninety-nine per cent of the world this film will be all about Maggie Smith's haunted, funny, painful turn as Mrs. Shepherd, the titular homeless woman whose temporary arrangement with Bennett to park her van on his drive turns into a fifteen-year comedy of manners. Quite right too - she's excellent, particularly in the heartbreaking scenes where she is tormented by reminders of the life she had before her mental collapse. At these points, The Lady in the Van can sit alongside Clio Barnard's The Arbor and Carol Morley's Dreams of a Life as a film which explodes the myth of 'making it', the comforting lie that people who've had one big break are immune from slipping into society's waste bin.
For me, though, it was Jennings as Bennett who fascinated most. He gets so much raw material by staying within the lines of Bennett's iconic public persona, never feeling like a mere impersonation but also deliberately never giving you something which jars with your idea of who Alan Bennett is. That's important, because Bennett's dilemma in writing about Shepherd is a proxy for concerns about his public and private life. He is quietly aware that he could live very happily as The Celebrity Alan Bennett, but it would mean not writing about his experiences and feelings, not being honest about his sexuality, perhaps even denying his emotions around his increasingly ill mother.
Sometimes Mrs. Shepherd appears as if she's a kind of golem or tulpa, a creature created by Bennett's anxieties around his mother and his life. This material, like the metafictional ending, can be a bit heady for Nicholas Hytner, a brilliant stage director whose film craft still rests too heavily on slathering on the stirring music and crane shots. I was unsure about his very theatrical generosity in awarding all the surviving cast of The History Boys roles, too - sweet, but it gets distracting when James Corden or Dominic Cooper turn up for a couple of lines each. They're certainly not bad in those roles, though; the acting across the board is impossible to fault. The star of the show is Bennett's script, though, which creates a real crowd-pleaser out of some very spiky material and unorthodox ideas.
★★★½ review by Love, Nathan on Letterboxd
Maggie Smith is an absolute DELIGHT and I don't know what we did to deserve someone as wholesome as she is
★★★★ review by Jay on Letterboxd
December Challenge 2015 - Film 3
It might be fair to criticise The Lady in the Van, as some people have, for being a bit one-note but when said note is as hilarious and enjoyable as this little ditty, I’m not sure I can really complain.
Besides, I happen to think The Lady in the Van is a far richer and deeper film than many people have given it credit for. Decorated amidst all the humorous cantankerous vulgarity of Maggie Smith’s titular character are a series of meta flourishes about the process of storytelling and about how Alan Bennett the man and Alan Bennett the writer see people differently. As such, The Lady in the Van becomes as much about the process of chronicling the story of the Lady in the Van as it does about the Lady in the Van herself… still with me?
It isn’t always coherent and some of the performances are a little flat (Roger Allam, for example, is basically playing Peter Mannion again), though the screenplay is certainly strong enough to carry everybody through. Alex Jennings makes for a great Bennett and Smith is clearly relishing her role as the frankly wretched old woman who basically takes advantage of the nicest and must put-upon man in London for fifteen years. The many scenes in which Bennett argues with himself are a particular highlight, as are those more tender moments in the final act when Smith’s character stumbles awkwardly towards her inevitable redemption.
It isn’t anything special – far from it, it’s a very predictable affair – but there’s actually something inherently comforting in that which Bennett himself would no doubt relish. It is the cinematic equivalent of a ragged old blanket and y’know what, there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
★★★★ review by Paul D on Letterboxd
The Lady in the Van paints a picture of a world, or at least an affluent part of London, which, if it ever existed, I'm fairly sure doesn't now. This is a place where an itinerant bag lady is, if not welcomed with open arms, somehow tolerated. The residents are sniffy and generally irritated by her presence but not overtly hostile.
And, moreover, the same can be said of the Social Services. Even if they don't exactly grab the bull by the horns they do at least appear every now and again to provide a modicum of support. And if you might speculate that the attitude of individuals has shifted over the years, there is little doubt that the position of the authorities certainly has, out of necessity and a lack of funding. I suppose we have different priorities these days.
Maggie Smith is simply magnificent and right now Alex Jenning's/Alan Bennett's voice is stuck in my head and i find myself thinking with his voice.
At the end of it all you can't help but feel that it's all a little inconsequential, but then again, that doesn't make it any the less enjoyable.
What I can't help but wonder though is whether Mr Bennett (I thought of Pride and Prejudice every time she refered to him) having already inserted two fictitious versions of himself into the story, really needed to place his real self in there as well.
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