FILM REVIEW: The Lady In The Van


The Lady In The Van (TLITV) is a film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s 1999 stage play of the same name, chronicling an event which went on to form a sizeable chunk of the writer’s life.
We are informed that it is, by and large, a true story with only slight embellishments.
The film’s opening sequence makes it clear that ‘Mary’ has been involved in a driving incident of some sort and fearful of the consequences of her involvement, is now running from the law.
Jim Broadbent – here conjuring up memories of Chief Inspector Roy Slater of Only Fools and Horses fame – is an occasional presence throughout as now retired but still wily and rather unethical, officer Underwood, a man who simply can’t let an unresolved case lie.
Fast forward a little: Mary, now an older and rather eccentric lady, emerges one day on a leafy street in inner London, driving a clapped out old van, replete with a still shattered windscreen, a casualty of the long since past, but not forgotten incident.
Parked at ever changing slots alongside the street kerb, the residents are all suitably sympathetic to her plight until that is, her wheels roll up outside their driveways!
What will the neighbours think, indeed…?!
More to the point, just what is Mary’s (or should that be, Margaret’s) real story and why is this dishevelled little old lady hiding out here on a leafy, 1970s Camden side road?
On lending a hand with her van one day, unwittingly, Alan Bennett begins the perplexing and at times arduous process of finding out; committing himself in the process to a ‘friendship’ with Mary, of a duration and peculiarity that he could only ever have imagined, or perhaps written about.
Maggie Smith plays Mary, and is evidently an actress still at the very peak of her powers, with a performance of genuinely great depth and conviction. Hers is a mesmerising portrayal of this mysterious and stubborn old boot.
Interestingly, Bennett – played here in understated fashion by Alex Jennings – is portrayed visually as a man of two halves, both of whom are in frequent, almost playful disagreement with one another. One Bennett lives his day-to-day, apparently unexceptional existence, the other, the creative ‘writer’ Bennett toils away at a typewriter by the window, in full view of Mary’s van, which is by now parked on his driveway, such are her persuasive powers. It and Mary herself have also by now become the focal point of his writing.
Fifteen years or so hosting a driveway lodger inevitably produces its ups and downs, not to mention a wealth of writing material as slowly, Mary’s remarkable story and her true identity for that matter, are revealed.
Interestingly, Mary is not painted as some great cathartic presence in Bennett’s life, or even somebody from whom he acquires some great insight or self-realisation. Indeed, Bennett at times just about tolerates her trying presence and the catalogue of annoyances that go along with it. It is however an unassuming friendship based more upon tolerance and empathy than any great telepathic understanding or deep rooted connection between them. Somehow though, it’s an arrangement that suits them both.
It’s a bitter-sweet and beautifully considered work from Director Nicholas Hytner, combining both the tender and heart warming, with the genuinely amusing.
Even a potentially misjudged Terry Gilliam-esque scene at the film’s finalé seems not to detract from TLITV‘s core message and sentiment,
providing in fact a somehow fitting, upbeat and joyous conclusion.
Genuinely wonderful stuff.

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