Monday, March 21, 2016
The Lady in the Van (Directed by Nicholas Hytner; Written by Alan Bennett)
Starring: Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Alex Jennings, Deborah Findlay, Roger Allam, Richard Griffiths, Dominic Cooper
Why I loved this film: Billed as 'a mostly true story', this is actually more like a commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain - with a little humour added by the 'always amazing' Dame Maggie Smith.
Alan Bennett is a British playwright. He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).
You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative 'squatter', but she was, in fact, quite a difficult woman. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned on stage and on the radio. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd's background: an educated French-speaking musician and former ambulance driver. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her going to confession on a consistent basis.
In this film, there are two Mr. Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple, continuously arguing over Ms. Shepherd. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he could not possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious, transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and a movie, it is difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett's actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing.
Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us that we should exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett's grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it is Ms. Shepherd's character that says 'I didn't choose. I was chosen'.
However, I must say that, as usual, Maggie Smith lights up the scenes. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place.
After watching the movie, I actually looked up Ms. Shepherd's story, and I must say, today she would not have been as lucky.
This is definitely a 'must see'. If not for the moral, then for the laughs.