The Lady in the Van

THE LADY IN THE VAN, drama, rated PG-13, Vi­o­let Crown, 1 chile

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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