It’s so much easier to tell a lie if you mumble out “possibly” at the very end. For example: it turns out that butter is good for you (possibly); I totally finished that report (possibly); I’m expecting a call from Prince Harry (possibly). See? Much easier. I learned this handy trick from a houseless although certainly not homeless woman named Miss Shepherd… possibly.
The Lady in the Van somehow managed to collect every British actor not currently employed by Game of Thrones but still unemployed after Harry Potter and throw them into this story of nosy neighbours and unwashed know-it-alls. It tells the (almost true) story of writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), who buys a house in London’s Camden neighbourhood and gets swept up by the gossip circle surrounding the street’s most unwanted tenant. Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is a complete snob, a stubborn nuisance, and a total mystery. She lives in a van on the street, occupying a different curb space in front of a difference residence every few weeks. When the local authorities establish parking restrictions, however, Miss Shepherd must resort to reverse psychology to convince Alan to let her park her hideous, noxious van in his driveway. Alan, smart though he may seem, agrees.
Now, why? Why would he do this? Maybe Alan feels sorry for Miss Shepherd – although the conversations he has with himself (a side-effect of living alone for too long) and her social worker hint that this is not the case. Maybe he thinks it’s a quick solution to today’s problem. Which it is… until that problem lingers for an eternity. More probably, on an unconscious level, the reason is because Miss Shepherd is too great of a mystery to ignore. Alan, a career writer, is in search of a gripping topic, and Miss Shepherd is a butterfly of secrets wrapped in a cocoon of soiled linens.
While the story of The Lady in the Van moves along steadily, with years passing in a blink (and no visible signs of ageing in the highly stressed Alan), Miss Shepherd may wither, but her various tones of unpleasant stench only seem to ripen. Smell is as prominent a sensory experience in The Lady in the Van as audio or visual. We cringe at the clumps of grease on Miss Shepherd’s clothes and wrinkle our noses at the abandoned turds in the driveway. Alan, through his extensive vocabulary and near-constant narration, never lets you forget that Miss Shepherd’s presence is emotionally as well as physically pungent. But we have to give it up for Maggie Smith. She somehow manages to bring all the pomp and sass of her Downton Abby Ladyship into this vagabond in a van. The only earthly delights that manage to soften Miss Shepherd’s concrete shell of disdain are primary yellow paint and Chopin. She and I are kindred spirits… possibly.
When she’s not being a total pain in the ass, Miss Shepherd is reaching into memories that go beyond our knowledge of the plot, but which tear at our heartstrings nonetheless. That’s Maggie Smith for you. Beside her is the always talking, rarely flustered, picture of English reserve, Alan. He is the voice through which comes the beautiful writing of Alan Bennett – the real Alan Bennett who actually endured the real Miss Shepherd living in his now heavily sanitized driveway. The writing is as beautiful and as elegant as the music that pulls Miss Shepherd back in time. It’s poetry for the eyes, ears, and soul.
What doesn’t necessarily fit in The Lady in the Van, however, is Alan’s body double. He speaks to himself, as I said before, but in a way that’s less pensive and more of a Gollum-and-the-ring situation. The splitting of Alan’s character doesn’t quite fit, and makes him look like more of a schizophrenic than a writer with a strong imagination.
The Lady in the Van isn’t a blockbuster bonanza, nor is it the deep, investigative Oscar drama we’ve been dying to see. It’s just a good story about a strange woman who can’t escape her demons. I probably wouldn’t rush out to see it again, but if you love a simple movie with excellent acting and a perfect caricature of London neighbourhoods, then The Lady in the Van is the pick for you. 7/10.