'The Lady in the Van'
Hollywood cliché has given us cause to be wary of movies that portray the homeless. They’re frequently designed as magical figures that will teach those with roofs the true value of life through their grit and optimism. It’s usually pretty tough to sit through that. Thankfully, ‘The Lady in the Van’ isn’t one of those movies.
The film has some problems, but it’s a witty and wise movie that knows better than to pander to the magical transient cliché. Taken from the uncomfortably autobiographical writings of playwright Alan Bennett (‘The History Boys’), ‘The Lady in the Van’ explores the life of a homeless woman with humor, honesty and self-reflective wit. It’s a clever little movie that may have some flaws, but also has more than enough laughs and discomforting reality to be worth a look.
The endlessly watchable Maggie Smith stars as Miss Shepherd, a lost English woman with a peculiar sense of arrogance considering that she’s living out of a rotting van. She parks her van in a variety of spots on an upper-middle class street in London. When playwright and raconteur Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) buys a house on the street, he becomes fascinated by the woman – or, more specifically, by the way she brings out reluctant and passive aggressive acts of charity from his uptight neighbors. When the police finally ask her to leave the street, Bennett offers Miss Shepherd the driveway to his home. She accepts without so much as a “Thank you” and stays there for 15 years, using his toilet and an extension cord to watch television in her van. Bennett constantly wonders if he should write about her and endlessly compares his relationship with her to his more troubled relationship with his own mother. When the elderly Miss Shepherd at last takes ill, Bennett begins to research her past and discovers unexpected secrets.
It’s a bit of an odd story to be sure, one complicated stylistically by the fact that Jennings plays two versions of Bennett that interact together on screen. One is the man and the other the writer, observing his life and feuding with himself about what experiences are suitable for his writings. It’s a very theatrical gimmick, but works rather well in context. It allows Bennett (the writer, not the character… whew!) to openly explore the themes and contradictions of the film in comedic ways. At best, it’s a Charlie Kaufman-ish abstraction that adds to the piece. At worst, it’s a lazy way of condensing the narrative and over-explaining the themes (especially the endless comparisons between Miss Shepherd and Bennett’s mother). Jennings does a wonderful job handling the two roles. He doesn’t do much to distinguish between them (the writing covers that), but he manages to somehow make the dual-selves role feel realistic.
Even so, despite doubling down on Alan Bennetts, Jennings is blown off the screen by Maggie Smith. Cantankerous and condescending, she makes no attempt to soften the character. Miss Shepherd has a raging attitude and a peculiar refusal to admit to doing anything wrong (usually waving off any suggestion that goes against her plan with a mumbled “Possibly…”). There’s something endearing about the character, and much of it is down to Smith’s performance, which is littered with trembles in the voice and pained stares that suggest a deep unspoken tragedy at the core. She leans into the laughs of the hilariously caustic role, yet never loses sight of the broken woman beneath all the erratic behavior, grime and unfortunate odors.
In fact, it’s almost disappointing when her character’s inevitably tragic origin story is revealed. Sure, it’s truthful, but also treated with a little too much string-pulling sheen by director Nicholas Hytner (‘The Madness of King George’) and Bennett’s screenplay. There’s a sense that the movie needs to tidy things up and present the audience with a pleasing heart-warming package that’s just a little too heavy-handed at the finish line. Still, the movie works wonderfully until then. Hytner’s playfully colorful direction and Bennett’s wry screenplay milk that particularly British brand of social discomfort for many laughs and create a warmly unconventional friendship between two very unlikely people.
‘The Lady in the Van’ is far from a perfect movie, and is certainly a small one, but there are enough excellent performances and clever insights to make it worth watching. Given the subject matter, the film should be a sanctimonious bore. The fact that it feels so alive and poignantly funny for so much of the running time is a minor miracle.