The Lady in the Van Review
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At some point, most of us have had to deal with some kind of difficult roommate—someone who stole our stuff or played loud music in the middle of the night or forgot to pay the rent. But in the quirky British dramedy The Lady in the Van, one man finds himself reluctantly sharing his life—and his space—with an unlikely companion.

The Lady in the Van tells the “mostly true” story of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), a lonely writer who moves into a new home in North London in 1970. The neighborhood is charming, and it comes complete with friendly neighbors and Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), an eccentric elderly woman who lives in a beat-up van that she moves up and down the street. Alan eventually forms a strange and reluctant bond with Miss Shepherd—and after he invites her to move the van into his driveway, he spends the next 15 years observing her and writing about her.

  
 
Movies about people like Miss Shepherd tend to be either heavy tear-jerkers or wacky, over-the-top comedies—but The Lady in the Van finds a happy medium. It’s a thoughtful but strangely madcap story about a batty old woman who takes up residence in a troubled man’s front yard.

Alan may be the story’s narrator (and writer), but this is Miss Shepherd’s story. And she’s a fascinating character—a sad, scared woman who nevertheless has a surprisingly strong sense of entitlement. She complains about the local kids. She’s picky about the neighbors’ generous gifts—whether she doesn’t like the food or the clothes are the wrong color. And when she accepts one of their handouts, instead of expressing her gratitude, she angrily shoos them away. She’s a pretty unpleasant person, yet Smith makes her oddly endearing—the perfect blend of quirky, cranky, and tormented.

Alan, meanwhile, just ends up caught up in her adventures. Closeted, lonely, and self-absorbed, he doesn’t treat Miss Shepherd with kindness and respect as much as he grudgingly complies with her passive-aggressive (and sometimes just downright aggressive) demands. He keeps her at an arm’s length, instead focusing on his own problems. And, for that reason, the story is often frustrating, as Alan skips around to reflect on his relationships with the two women in his life—his aging mother and the crazy woman in his driveway—as well as on his own split, conflicted personality. But, in the end, he manages to open his eyes and see Miss Shepherd for what she is: a human being who’s just as desperate for love and acceptance as he is. And, as both writer and character, he manages to end the film in a way that’s both thought-provoking and appropriately irreverent.

Thanks to another remarkable performance by Maggie Smith, then, The Lady in the Van is a charming and entertaining film. And though the storytelling has its share of issues, the message still shines through.


Blu-ray Review:
The Lady in the Van was one of the films that seemed to get lost in this year’s award season madness. But its thoughtful story and Maggie Smith’s noteworthy performance make it worth revisiting (or seeking out for the first time).

The film’s Blu-ray release also includes a number of insightful special features—including three deleted scenes, a commentary track with director Nicholas Hytner (who offers more information about the story and the characters), and a making-of feature, which follows the story from real life to the stage and finally to the screen. There’s even a feature on the film’s special effects, which explains how the filmmakers were able to make one Alex Jennings play two Alan Bennetts.

While the making-of feature offers some interesting insights into the film, though, the highlight of the special features menu is Playing the Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd, which talks about the beloved performer, her career, her history with the character, and her performance. So if you’re a fan of Maggie Smith, don’t skip the special features.


Listen to the review on Reel Discovery:

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