Release: 7th March 2016
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
The true story of Alan Bennett and his relationship with the singular Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeds to live there for 15 years.
At 82 years old, most people are settling into a retirement home, getting their fourth hip replacement and/or pushing up daisies. Not Maggie Smith; she, instead, is busy getting a second wind and giving some of the best performances of her career. The Lady In The Van represents ‘Maggs 2.0’ at her most outstanding, and towers as a shining example of just how eccentric and brilliant British cinema can be when it steps away from East End gangsters, period dramas and depressing verite.
Depending on how Bennetty you like your Alan, you may find The Lady In The Van to be, at times, a little weary. The meta device of Alan and doppelgänger ‘AB’ is a direct carry over from the stage show. It looks better on film, and Alex Jennings is a triumph as both Alans; but it feels indulgent and distracts from the film’s charm. So too is the case with the film’s, frankly, unsightly closing minutes – an ill-advised dip in Monty Python territory, a clunky cameo and then it all just ends. But for the most part The Lady In The Van is a wonderfully emotional workout; exercising the mouth, stomach and heart muscles.
The cast and crew of the film have a long running relationship with Alan Bennett and his material, and it really shows in just how accomplished the movie is. Many play adaptations feel like cameras planted on a stage (see Rabbit Hole, Sleuth, Killer Joe) but Nicholas Hytner and his DoP Andrew Dunn have managed to afford The Lady In The Van a very cinematic feel. Gloucester Crescent looks like something from a Richard Curtis movie, and the surrounding world of Camden drips with 70’s nostalgia. Even the van which Miss Shepherd inhabits looks like something you’d more likely find down the tip than at a West End venue. While Miss Shepherd, herself, looks exactly the way Alan describes her; most notably that she stinks of piss and damp newspaper. This, of course, all contributes to the authenticity of the film’s comedy and tragedy; ultimately making The Lady In The Van all the more lasting.
The film has a wonderful supporting cast, but as Meghan Trainor said, it’s “all about that bass”; or in this instance, the lead roles. The fact that Maggie Smith never stood a chance against Brie Larson should not detract from the simple truth; she more than deserved an Oscar nomination here. Why she missed out to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence will forever remain a mystery. Smith’s Miss Shepherd is such a rich tapestry of human experiences; you can imagine how easy it would have been to live with such a woman for so many years. If the real Miss Shepherd was a shade of what Maggie Smith provides in The Lady In The Van, then she must have been a wonderfully entertaining and frustrating person to know. Alex Jennings, likewise, is spectacular. He manages to make Alan Bennett a paradoxically funny and unflattering character, yet always keeping him in favour with the audience. Mark Rylance may have won Best Supporting Actor this year, but in my honest opinion, Jennings could easily have been the main contender. Then, of course, we have the screenplay; a beautiful piece of human poetry, rife with zingers, beats and biting tirades.
Who is the British equivalent of Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith? Get them on the phone, because it would seem the Academy has some issues with picking decent nominees in more ways than one.
Film Grade: B-
Nothing too juicy comes by way of the Making Of, but we do get a good sense of the working relationships behind the film. This is further explored in Playing The Lady and the reasonably engaging Director’s Commentary; which both show a profound respect for Maggie Smith and the triumphant work she has put into this character over the years.
The Deleted Scenes are all great; the best of which involves a sweet shop and the word “bottom”. While The Visual Effects looks at some of the wonderful and (mostly) subtle work that went into making The Lady In The Van one of the least showy CGI movies of the year.
Special Features Grade: B-
This wonderful little gem has successfully disguised itself as a British tale for British people. But nothing is more universal than a story of friendship; even if it is between a meek playwright and the cantankerous poop machine living on his drive.