The Lady in The Van, based off a true-story, is a surprisingly very well-made and funny black comedy/drama movie. It tells the story of a man who forms a relationship with an old, crazy woman who is living in her van that is parked in his driveway. This film works mainly because of the relationship between these two characters is believable, and Maggie Smith delivers an amazingly, wickedly amusing performance in the title role.
Adapted from his best-selling novel about his own life experience, Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), is a writer and an actor who, in the 1970s, befriended Miss Mary Shepherd (played by Maggie Smith), a very eccentric elderly woman. He allowed Miss Shepherd to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home. As the story develops, over the course of fifteen years, Bennett discovers that Miss Shepherd is actually, in fact, Margaret Fairchild, a former, gifted pupil of the pianist, Alfred Cortot. In her past, Ms. Fairchild/Shepherd had played in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, and after being committed to an institution, was diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.
The film has some nice directing touches by Nicholas Hytner, but it seems to rely a lot on the characters’ acting, and Maggie Smith carries the film quite well. Her sense of “craziness” is well portrayed, and believable whenever she’s overacting or yelling. “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”, she yelled at one point. Alex Jennings is very good in his part, as well, particularly in the sequences where he’s talking to himself, as if daydreaming, about what’s going on in his life. His performance is quite nuanced in that regard.
Two of my favorites directing touches were a montage of Alan Bennett, cleaning up and sweeping his house, and another depicting Shepherd in a flashback, showing her playing a piano, but a Catholic female priest stopped her before she could finish. These two scenes helped add to the overall feel of the film.
The film has a great amount of black humor in it. The script is quite good, and lines such as “Sex. I read about that, too”, and, “I know what I’m talking about”, made me laugh quite a bit.
The score by George Fenton, who actually appears near the beginning of the film as a conductor, is also quite marvelous. It feels like a circus going crazy, almost paralleling the lady as a character. It also has a very adventurous and comic feel to it. It even has a dark and sinister theme at various times running throughout, which is played in scenes where it looks like something bad is about to happen.
If The Lady in The Van has any faults, it’s that it’s storyline didn’t always keep me invested in it 100% of the time, but that’s only a somewhat minor flaw to an overall very enjoyable, well-made, and well-acted film.