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The Lady in the Van

2015-12-11 09:24

What it's about:

This film is based on Alan Bennett's autobiographical play of the same name. It tells the true story of his strained friendship with the singular Miss Mary Shepherd, a dotty and stubborn former nun, and now a transient woman of uncertain origins living in her car. The two form an unexpected bond after Shepherd 'temporarily' parked her van in Bennett's London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years.

What we thought:

British humour will always have that subtle hilarity that few Hollywood productions can muster, and you would expect nothing less from the pen of Allan Bennet, renowned playwright of The History Boys fame. The Lady in the Van is another of his masterpieces, which chronicles the true story of a homeless woman who parked her van in his driveway for 15 years. Besides the wit and sheer ridiculousness of the tale, the audience is made very aware of the story’s fluid veracity through Bennet’s split personality – the one who experiences and the one who writes. A unique take on a writer’s psyche, The Lady in the Van is a quirky piece of non-fiction with a dash of fiction.

As Bennet (Alex Jenning) moves into a new house, he becomes acquainted with a homeless mad woman (Maggie Smith) who drives around in a van, making her home on streets as she travels. Caught in a legal issue, Bennet invites her to park her van in his driveway until she gets herself sorted. This three-week stay turns into a 15-year forced cohabitation.

This is the third time Smith took on the role of the lady in the van, having performed it in the original 1999 on-stage production and 10 years later in a radio version, and her familiarity with the character plus her veteran talents makes for a hilarious yet pious performance. Despite the amazing one-liners and subtle humour, Smith also brings to the lady a genuine sadness, mixed with guilt and a heart broken by music. She’s got smoother edges than Smith’s other lady performance in Downton Abbey, and her kookiness makes her an endearing character despite her rudeness.

Although most autobiographical stories make claim to truth and fact, they are always coloured by the prejudices and exaggerations of the writer. Bennet takes on this dilemma with fervour, creating two Bennets who are constantly at odds with each other. The Bennet who lives through the experiences becomes disgruntled when the writer Bennet changes conversations and events, openly displeased with his other’s trepid approach to life. The audience is made aware that not everything that happens in the film is what really happened, but it doesn’t make you feel like you are being cheated. We ourselves craft our lives in various ways that aren’t completely true to reality, specifically on social media and how we recount our adventures in our minds. Bennet is just more open about it.

If you loved The History Boys and/or are a big Maggie Smith fan, then trot down to your local art nouveau cinema for a good laugh at the foibles of humanity. It might also make you think twice about your own prejudices when you run into your local homeless person.

Read more on:    dominic cooper  |  maggie smith  |  movies

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