Directed by Nicholas Hytner
The British comedy-drama, “The Lady in the Van”, a mostly true story set in the 1970’s, is the third collaboration between the director Nicholas Hytner and the playwright/screenwriter, Alan Bennett. The first time - Hytner’s directorial debut - happened in 1994 with the triumphant “The Madness of King George”, and the second in 2006 with the scenic “The History Boys”. Both of them consisted of Bennett’s adaptations of his own plays. “The Lady in the Van”, in turn, is based on his memoir that already had been taken to the stage twice, in 1999 (West End play) and in 2009 (BBC Radio 4).
As in the theatrical versions, the cinematic variant stars the laudable Maggie Smith as an exceptional elderly woman who lives in her overloaded old van, which she moves along the same street of Camden Town, London. Her name is Mary Shepherd and she’s known, among other things, for her discourtesy toward the neighbors, stubbornness, self-victimization when convenient, and an acute sensitivity to noise (she runs away from music and children). She adopts a recalcitrant posture that triggers irritation on some of the dwellers and a sort of an inquisitive admiration on others.
It happened that her ‘neighbor’, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), doubly portrayed here by his two struggling selves, was kind enough to help her pushing the old van to the opposite corner, and courteous to show some interest in how she was managing to live. What he learned about her, and is transposed to his narration and to the beautifully shot images, wasn’t so inviting since the smelly Maggie is offensively sharp-tongued and often leaves bags of shit around her van. Yet, the truth is that he allowed her to park the car in his driveway for 15 years and even let her use his lavatory. A relationship of trust is rapidly built as we get to know more about the antisocial lady ‘beggar’ who, after all, had studied in France, carries a trauma since her youth days, has a brother living near, and is occasionally haunted by a blackmailer – an indifferent episode that fails to add something worthy to the statement.
Despite the power of the characters, not every situation thrives in “The Lady in the Van”. Besides failing to draw enthusiastic laughs, the film promised a lot but didn’t deliver that much. A certain ineptitude in its narrative process was sensed, probably the main reason why I couldn’t feel any special fondness for it. Without expressing significantly strong variations on the emotional side, and resorting to the use of a flashy final scene (Miss Shepherd flamboyantly ascending into heaven) whose single purpose is to bring down the curtain with a feel-good formula in order to please, I keep upholding the opinion that Maggie Smith’s wholehearted performance is the film’s most valuable feature.