The Lady in the Van (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

It’s a bit distracting to have so many name actors in small roles, but still good fun to spot them as they appear.

ladyinthevan

Most of the buzz about The Lady in the Van has been about the performance of Maggie Smith as a homeless woman who parked her van in Alan Bennett’s driveway one day and proceeded to remain for fifteen years. While I’m a great admirer of Dame Maggie (she’s the principal reason I keep watching Downton Abbey), and she delivers a strong performance as the titular Lady, the central story of the film is that of her reluctant host, Alan Bennett.

Bennett is played by Alex Jennings, a distinguished actor best known for his stage performances, where his range and versatility is underlined by the fact that he is the only person to have Olivier Awards (a rough equivalent to the Tonys) in the drama, musical, and comedy categories. He’s also had supporting roles in a number of widely-distributed films, including The Queen and The Wings of the Dove. So if Alex Jennings is not yet a household name in the United States, that is our fault more than his, and if there’s any justice in the world, The Lady in the Van will move him into that category.

The Lady in the Van is based on a 1999 play by Bennett (Smith played the same role on stage that she does in the film), which is in turn based on true events that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Bennett lived at that time in Gloucester Crescent, a pleasant section of London populated by artsy middle-class families that like to avoid unpleasantness and feel that they are doing the right thing, the latter perhaps more for the good of their self-image than out of any actual concern for the less fortunate. So when Miss Shepherd (based on Margaret Fairchild) parks her dilapidated van in their leafy neighborhood, they don’t call the police but instead tolerate her presence while making something of a joke about it. When Miss Shepherd moves her van, something she does regularly, they watch with a mix of horror and amusement from behind their hedges to see which house will be the next reluctant host to this smelly eyesore.

Clues about how Miss Shepherd came to be living in a van (without sanitary facilities, a point which is underlined to grimly comic effect in several conversations and sequences) is scattered throughout the film, but solving that mystery is not the heart of the film. Miss Shepherd is all about surviving in the present time, and despite her straitened circumstances, she commands the assistance she needs as if she were the Dowager Countess, with never a please or a thank you. It’s a role that could have become a caricature in the hands of less-skilled actress, and also one that could have dominated the story to the point of blocking out the light for the other characters, but Smith keeps Miss Shepherd firmly under wraps and makes her part of a complex story rather than the perpetual center of attention.

There are actually two Alan Bennetts in this film—one which sits at his desk and writes, the other of which interacts with the world, including Miss Shepherd. When we fist meet Bennett, he has already achieved success as a writer and actor but does not have the confidence to match his accomplishments, due in part to his insecurity about being gay. Both Bennetts are played by Jennings, literalizing the predicament of someone who has not yet integrated his life and his art. At first, this device seems a bit cheesy (the two Bennetts often have discussions with each other, stating literally things that could more artfully have been left for us to discover), but it turns out to be a fine device to portray the process of integration that Bennett experiences over the course of the story.

The question of why Bennett tolerated and in fact actively assisted someone as difficult as Miss Shepherd for so many years is answered through the changes in Bennett’s character (and I’m sure you remember from English class that the protagonist of the story is the one who changes). While the real-life Bennett has been accused of mining Miss Shepherd for material, it’s more likely that his reason for playing reluctant host for so many years is the less obvious fact that the influence of interacting with her benefitted his development both as a writer and as a person.

The Lady in the Van is full of cameos by well-known actors, including much of the cast of The History Boys film (directed by Nicholas Hytner, as is The Lady in the Van). Among others, Dominic Cooper shows up as a young man Bennett tries to put the moves on, Frances de la Tour rides by on her bicycle, Roger Allam plays an obnoxious neighbor who likes to take pokes at the insecure Bennett, Jim Broadbent makes an appearance as a blackmailer, and Stephen Campbell Moore plays a physician. It’s a bit distracting to have so many name actors in small roles, but still good fun to spot them as they appear. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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