The Lady in the Van
THE LADY IN THE VAN, drama, rated PG-13, Violet Crown, 1 chile
In 1989, the British writer Alan Bennett published a memoir titled The
Lady in the Van, which recounted the odd but true tale of a cantankerous old woman who lived in a van in Bennett’s comfortable London crescent, parked her vehicle in his driveway, and stayed put until her death 15 years later, tolerated if not much embraced by Bennett and his neighbors. A decade later, he transformed the memoir into a much-applauded play, which was directed by Nicholas Hytner and starred Maggie Smith as the eccentric and volatile Miss Shepherd.
Now the team has recast the piece for the silver screen. The film is a mystery, in the sense that it is a mystery how Hytner, a director of considerable brilliance, could possibly have propelled such an inferior movie into existence. Dame Maggie created a stir when the stage play ran in London, but in the time since she has grown 17 years more redoubtable. One suspects that she was encouraged to simply play the part people have come to expect from her, with the result that her characterization, against all odds, is not very interesting. One might have expected a richer palette, since the movie, like the play, introduces intriguing information about Miss Shepherd’s earlier life that Bennett had not yet known when he penned his memoir. Of particular interest is that she had once been an accomplished pianist, and this provides material for the film’s finest scene: Alone in a room, Miss Shepherd hesitatingly makes her way to a piano and gives heartfelt voice to a bit of Chopin. But it is too little too late in a portrayal that is mostly limited to a crone chewing the scenery.
Alex Jennings takes the part of Bennett. In fact, he plays a bifurcated Bennett, who, in a self- conscious complication, is presented as both “Bennett the Man” and “Bennett the Writer,” sometimes conversing with himselves in the same scene. Both are bland, motivated by inertia rather than charity. (The real Alan Bennett makes a narcissistic cameo appearance near the end.) A standout in the supporting cast is Frances de la Tour, as neighbor Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer’s widow), but if you blink, you’ll miss her. An annoying soundtrack by George Fenton — part chipper Brit-com, part ironic pseudo-Shostakovich (illogically) — adds to the emotional glibness. The film, we feel bound to mention, displays such an exorbitant interest in defecation that one might have expected Miss Shepherd’s digestive leavings to show up in the cast list. The philosophical takeaway from the movie is that it’s nice to be nice, even if you’re not much invested in it — plus the Forrest Gumpish observation that “In life, going downhill is an uphill job.”
The lady is a tramp: Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings