THE LADY IN THE VAN is based on a true account by playwright Alan Bennett of a period of 15 years during which a woman living in a van came to stay on his driveway in London. It would be fairly easy to say that this is what the film is about; but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. While the film is primarily interested in the lady in question (played as she was on stage by Dame Maggie Smith), her life before and during her stay in the van, and the interactions she has with those around her, the film focuses on the character of Bennett (Alex Jennings) just as much. The film follows Bennett as he writes the story being told on screen and deals – in some fairly interesting ways – with his creative process, and his inner dialogue regarding how he should behave and what he should write.
However, director Nicholas Hytner knows this isn’t enough on its own to satisfy the viewer, so the film also contains what appears to be a mystery plot involving the Lady, Mary Shepherd’s backstory. This plot isn’t particularly successful; while it does keep the viewer interested, and we do find out some of her history, the way it is presented undermines itself, giving the audience titbits that may or may not be true, before confirming them. While it can be done well, it in this case seemed to serve to undermine both the initial delivery and the eventual confirmation, making both far less impactful, meaningful and interesting.
It doesn’t mean that the film is bad; it just makes parts of it unsatisfying. But the real reason to watch this was never the little mystery subplot. The real draws of the film are twofold; comedy and introspective human drama.
The comedy is fairly dry, and mostly comes from characters responding strangely to each other or the mundane absurdity of situations they find themselves in. The comedy is where the quality of the acting becomes very much evident. Pretty much every character has at least one moment which is made priceless by small facial expressions or small variances in tone or timing. Maggie Smith, as the titular character, is particularly noteworthy in this regard, delivering a spot-on performance.
As good as the comedy is, the film has its fair share of meditative moments, mainly Bennett’s reactions to and handling of the situation, as well as its impact on him. This is done well, with a number of interesting choices which make his inner dialogue apparent, and with the frequency with which it occurs, one really gets an insight into his thought processes. This insight, while it reveals a character which is not entirely likeable, still presents an interesting character flawed in a very human way.
Beyond this, The Lady in the Van is fairly difficult to discuss. It has a number of interesting themes – (such as being able to make up one’s mind, and what different characters do when faced with people who believe that things they love are dangerous, taboo or evil – as well as being a solid comedic piece and an interesting discussion of the thought processes of writers. However, due to difficulty discussing these things without resorting to spoilers I will have to settle for a mere recommendation. Go and see The Lady in the Van if you can; it is a very well done film of its kind and if you enjoy its style of humour, it will hopefully be an enjoyable and interesting experience.