Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This biopic about the unlikely relationship between a gay playwright and a homeless woman who essentially squats on his property includes some cursing; quite a lot of jokes and comments about feces, body odors, and bodily functions, including a few scenes of feces; the suggestion of one-night stands between the protagonist and younger men; a shockingly bloody car accident that causes a death; and a subplot about the oppressive nature of the Catholic Church and its negative attitudes toward women. Also a couple of scenes in asylums and assisted-nursing facilities that may be upsetting.
‘The Lady in the Van’ follows a fairly typical old-people-are-more-than-they-seem storyline. Although the film will work for multigenerational viewing, the bizarreness of this true story is underplayed.
By Roxana Hadadi
Maggie Smith is wonderful at playing crotchety old women. She’s an old hat at this kind of thing, and so “The Lady in the Van” feels very much like a retread for her – an acting performance she’s already turned in, as good as it may be.
How different is Smith here from her roles in “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” or “My Old Lady”? Not very. In each of them she’s bossy, no-nonsense, and secretly thoughtful. What is remarkable about “The Lady in the Van,” though, is that it’s a true story: A homeless woman parks her van in the driveway of a man she barely knows, and doesn’t leave for 15 years. Only British patience could stand for such a thing.
The film is based on playwright Alan Bennett’s same-named book, and he writes the screenplay here, too. The story goes like this: Alan (Alex Jennings, of “Belle”) is a loner and a writer – two aspects of his personality that materializing as two separate Alans onscreen – who moves into the Camden Town neighborhood in London in 1970. The community has retired couples, young families, and the lady in the van, Miss Mary Shepherd (Smith, of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), who is known by the citizens for cycling through areas, parking her van on the side of the road, and staying for a while.
Everyone feels sorry for her but no one really wants her around, not with her complaints whenever anyone plays music, her messy bodily functions, and her odor. But Alan’s sense of common decency lets her use the bathroom for an emergency one day, and after that some kind of relationship develops between them. Mary isn’t nice to him – she’s bossy and kind of cruel, especially with her snide comments about his sexuality – but they keep rotating into each other’s lives. And when Alan lets her park her van in his driveway so she doesn’t get towed away, he unknowingly creates a dynamic that will last years.
Miss Shepherd is also hiding a secret, and her passionate fear of the police eventually leads Alan to discovering more about her. What happened to Miss Shepherd that led her to the streets? Although Alan insists of her presence in his life, “She’s just something that’s happening,” it’s clear that the bond between the two of them is more than that.
That’s not to say that “The Lady in the Van” is overly sentimental. In typical British comedy fashion, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy that is obvious here, much like last year’s “What We Did on Our Holiday.” Neither Alan nor Miss Shepherd is particularly happy, but that’s just who they are. Smith, as always, does magic with lines like “I’m not a beggar. I’m self-employed!” and although Jennings plays his role very dry, his droll delivery of dialogue including “I’m stuck with old ladies” helps him hold his own.
But the film’s subdued characters are mirrored in how the narrative unfolds, which treats its major reveals like they’re nothing. When Miss Shepherd’s background is shared, it’s extraordinary – but Bennett seems to brush it off. When her fear of the police is contextualized, the character doing the telling also seems to shrug it away. The matter-of-fact nature of the film works well, but when the surprising elements of the story are shared, that straightforwardness is unsatisfactory.
If practically everyone in “The Lady in the Van” reacts to the titular character’s life story with little more than a “Huh,” why are we expected to care more? You’ll warm to Smith, but that’s more because of her performance than how the film builds the character. Although “The Lady in the Van” will work for multiple generations of viewers – grandparents and teens, especially – its strong performances don’t even out the otherwise surprisingly subdued film.
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