I really wanted to like The Lady in the Van. It starts with the sounds of a car crash underneath a black screen…sound effects to give impetus to the ensuing story of Maggie Smith living repugnantly in a van. Ostensibly, it’s a warning to us all. Don’t let things take you to the floor. Don’t give up on feeding the talents that are yours. And, really, don’t shit in people’s driveways.
But – oh me, oh my – it descends pretty quickly into self-indulgence and a patience-tester. Written by Alan Bennett, starring Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett (writer), with Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett (living lifer), and a cameo in its closing moments by Alan Bennett, where someone calls him Alan just to underline things – gahhhhhh!
The film is split in two, much like the Bennetts, who discuss the agonies of their creativity and tangible aloneness. There is the Alan Bennett part: looking out of his writing room into the driveway for fifteen years or so, condemning his reductive existence and use of others as muses. There is the Lady in the Van part: Dame Maggie as Miss Shepherd the bag lady, living in fetid discomfort in tiny vans that she paints yellow.
Hers is the less indulgent element, leavened by full-on character acting at its most intense. She shouts, she rages, she won’t say her thank yous, she charges at children in the street (they are playing classical music, mind, like right little suburbanites)…yet she stays a mystery, much like the smashed window on her first van. She is haunted by an unexplained past, which is kind of obvious given the film opens with old film of an orchestra in full flight, closely followed by a darkly bewigged Jim Broadbent as a copper, and a modern day (1970s…) Jim Broadbent banging on the van at night and terrorising money out of her. So, thought Old Jack, she’s a musician, can’t face being near it, being blackmailed by the copper who saw her smash into someone with her van. Hmmm. So, without surprises, the story only gives us quality actors doing party-pieces.
I was hoping for meaningful insights and a dalliance with fear. I’ve lived a long life, been unemployed, been scared of losing my home. Hell, even wondered where food would come from next week. This is Miss Shepherd’s life, but the film examines only its stagnation – putting her on hold until the end explains rather than surprises.
And – as the title cards imply – this is a nearly-true story. She really moved into Alan Bennett’s driveway on a London street jam-packed with bourgeois smugerati and their ’70s duds. Roger Allam is my favourite (as Rufus), commenting blithely for fifteen years with snobbery and contempt for the mean old woman, his face getting paler, his flares narrower, and his hair twisting into greyness like a melting gargoyle. That the old woman in question didn’t change her clothes, no matter where the anal explosions landed, is hostile and ungrateful, well, we’re not really invited to like Rufus, whereas dignified sympathy is encouraged for Miss Shepherd. Perhaps only on this nearly-true street are people that nice…
Alex Jennings is excellent as Bennett, but the self-indulgence chokes his performance of its genteel humour. Maggie Smith is what you’d expect: imperious and rudely comic as her life is examined. Broadbent is a duff note as the subplot goes nowhere. And the thing ends with a ghastly moment of opening clouds and angelic forearms that…well…funnily enough, was everything that was awful about the end of On Borrowed Time (1939).
The Lady in the Van gives off all the ingredients of British comedy ((c) Richard Curtis World), but ultimately lets down its audience. It conspired to make real people feel unreal.
Give it a go – it’s on Netflix from this month – but you should already love Alan Bennett, not mind tacky endings, and think Maggie Smith as a wrecked soul in a shit-stained skirt is the epitome of light comedy.