ReelBob: ‘The Lady in the Van’

By Bob Bloom

Maggie Smith gives a humorous and touching performance as a homeless woman who ensconces herself and her live-in van in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett in “The Lady in the Van,” based on a memoir by the writer.

The film tells the true story of the relationship between Bennett and Miss Shepherd, a woman with a murky past, who “temporarily” parked her van in the driveway of his London home and lived there for 15 years.

Director Nicholas Hytner, using a script written by Bennett, chooses a clever, but tiring device of having two Bennetts comment on the proceedings.

From the outset, we are told this is because Bennett is of two minds about Miss Shepherd: The playwright in him enjoys observing and jotting notes about his subject, but the individual is resentful of the intrusion, but too timid and polite to insist she move.

The film also is a treatise on British society in the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, which — at least in the section of London where Bennett resides — seems to be more tolerant of and helpful toward those on the fringes of society.

People in the neighborhood bring Miss Shepherd clothes, food and even Christmas gifts.

As portrayed by Smith, Shepherd is irascible, demanding, petulant, manipulative and insulting.

She also is frightened, vulnerable, constantly haunted by an incident from her past. Her mental state is questionable, as she switches from normalcy to irrationality at the slightest provocation.

She dominates the movie as much as she slowly begins to dominate Bennett’s life.

Alex Jennings is splendid as Bennett, a man of two minds. He adamantly refuses to be classified as Shepherd’s caregiver and resents the turmoil she creates in his life.

Yet, because of his own guilt about keeping his mother at arms’ length, he reluctantly continues to aid his “tenant.”

Bennett does not visit his mother as frequently as she likes, and he continually rebuffs her suggestions that she move to London and live with him.

As his mother deteriorates mentally and physically, he puts her in a home, which only increases his feelings of guilt.

As the film proceeds, Hytner slowly reveals bits and pieces about Shepherd’s past, including the unfortunate incident that transformed her.

“The Lady in the Van” has a familiar feel to it. Fans of Charlie Kauffman may see glimpses of “Adaptation” or “Being John Malkovich” rise up, especially in the presentation of Bennett’s dual persona.

The film’s comedic and dramatic elements do not seamlessly mesh, and the pacing is uneven. At 104 minutes, the movie feels longer.

Nonetheless, “The Lady in the Van” is a showcase for Smith, who provides another amazing performance in her long and storied career.

She is the vehicle that so wonderfully propels this “Van.”

Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.

THE LADY IN THE VAN
3 stars out of 4
(PG-13), disturbing images

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