REVIEW: The Lady in the Van

16 02 2016

The Lady in the VanThe titular character of Nicholas Hytner’s “The Lady in the Van,” Maggie Smith’s Miss Shepherd, is simply a laugh riot. It seems as if all Smith needs is a camera to watch her, and crotchety comedy ensues. The vagabond Miss Shepherd, who lives like a pack rat in a van wandering the streets of London, feels like a brand extension of Smith’s “Downton Abbey” character. There could be worse things to watch.

At the ripe age of 82, Smith thrives off of stealing the show no matter which project she choose. “The Lady in the Van” is no different. Yet by indulging her for every crowd-pleasing laugh, it steals a little thunder from the quiet center of the film.

While Miss Shepherd is the film’s undeniable star, she is not the protagonist. That role belongs to playwright Alan Bennett, played here by Alex Jennings. The real Bennett harbored this curmudgeonly vagrant for nearly two decades and weaved her story into a best-selling memoir. He never intended to let Miss Shepherd park her van in his driveway for so long, but one thing just led to another – and neither found anything heinously disagreeable in their arrangement.

Though much is revealed about what led Miss Shepherd from a life of concert piano playing and convent living, “The Lady in the Van” is as much about what she reveals in Bennett. Sadly, he writes himself far too modestly as a character in his own life, becoming wallpaper for Miss Shepherd to prance around in front of. Bennett’s only attention-grabbing move is a device making a split self, a “liver” and a “writer.” One takes part in events while the other records them later for posterity.

There are hints that the film could have been as stirring as “Philomena,” a similar story about a privileged British writer who receives humbling at the hands of a quirky older woman. “The Lady in the Van” mostly just sticks with fun schtick from Miss Shepherd, though. That alone makes for sufficient entertainment, but a little more emotional and intellectual depth could have propelled it beyond mere diversion. B2halfstars

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One response

5 03 2016
CineMuse

Thanks for this review; you draw an interesting comparison with Philomena which I would never have thought of. I’ve also just reviewed this Maggie Smith film and invite you to compare notes. I’ve added you to follow too.

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