Review: The Lady in the Van

The idea of a film where Dame Maggie Smith, queen of Downton Abbey and overall treasure plays a homeless woman living in a bright yellow van whose a complete nutter is pretty intriguing but it’s always a question of how far you can take that. Miss Shepherd (Smith) is pitied upon by Alan (Alex Jennings) and moves her van into his driveway until that is, she decides where she’ll be going next and ends up staying for 15 years; based on a true story written by Alan Bennett. It’s a story of a strange but kind nature and entails a very tried but present bond between what really are two perfect strangers.

Being realistic it’s a hard thing to create something bad to say about Maggie Smith, she’s been acting for decades (5 to be exact) and knows her stuff; especially since this is her third time playing Miss Shepherd from the stage to radio to screen. It’s no surprise, she’s the perfect choice as a very interesting, mad and angry woman who despite her apparent smell and odd behaviour is still love-able so there is not a single criticism I have of her performance. It’s a real shame the same cannot be said of Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett, I’m a stickler for accents and his attempt at a Leeds accent is incredibly grating and immediately makes it difficult to relate to as a character, it may be in the right town but it is far too over the top, which considering it’s his third time playing Bennett, it’s disappointing. The character really only becomes less relate-able as time goes on, there being not just one but two of him as he continually talks to another version of himself throughout the film. It’s extremely difficult to take him seriously as some generous, kind man when after letting Miss Shepherd stay in his drive way, for the rest of the film he simply complains about it while Smith does all the hard work and creates the story and the intrigue. If there were less focus on Smith and slightly more on Jennings this film would be much less attractive.

I had expected this to be a touching while hilarious story but I found myself not being drawn in by it; the element of holding mystery around Smith’s character and slowly telling her story in pieces throughout the film, though true to how it must have happened in real life though an incredible story, may have been better served by letting the audience in on it and watching as Alan found out what we already knew, to get that (more) satisfying reveal. The other thing I’m fairly in two minds about is the humour, a great deal of it is included in the trailers though not all of it; nevertheless it feels more of a smirk humour than a laugh out loud which slightly disappointing as the concept of it feels extremely humorous and yet doesn’t come across as such.

I wouldn’t say that this is a bad film but it’s one of those I’d expect to be incredibly touching and though it is touching, it just doesn’t hit that close. It’s an extraordinary insight into how one person’s life can be pushed so far off course and how little we can know about a person, but I found it slightly disappointing and my verdict would be slightly less without the wonderful Maggie Smith and appearances of all but a few of the cast of notable Bennett play, 2006 adaptation The History Boys (De la Tour, Cooper, Corden, Tovey, Anderson, Campbell Moore, Dhawan, Barnett, Parker and Merrison).

Verdict: 6/10

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