Friday, 4 March 2016

Film Review: The Lady in the Van

Director Nicholas Hytner doesn’t quite do Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van justice, despite some stellar work from the delightfully cantankerous Maggie Smith. 

Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1989 novel The Lady in the Van has been adapted on numerous occasions since its publication, from award-winning theatre productions in London’s West End to radio plays on the BBC. Now, 25 years on, The Lady in the Van arrives on cinema screens starring the same actress that brought the eccentric lead character to life on stage, Dame Maggie Smith, as well as an all-star cast of British actors and comedians.

Set in the leafy London suburb of Camden Town, The Lady in the Van is an autobiographical recount of Bennett’s association with a homeless elderly woman, Miss Shepard (Smith), who invites herself to live on his driveway from a rusty and dilapidated old van. Spanning more than 15 years, Bennett (here played by English stage actor Alex Jennings) and Miss Shepard develop an unconventional friendship despite the disapproving gazes of their snooty neighbours.

Bennett’s loyal adaptation (he pens the screenplay himself) manages to uphold his trademark feel of snarky British wit and depreciating humour. Smith is in her element as the bedraggled and bug-eyed old woman who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of her. Naturally there are details to her past that Miss Shepard strives to keep a secret, and this resentment and shame is etched into Smith’s face in every frame. Smith channels her familiarity with the role into her every movement and line delivery, disappearing into the character, and her associated bizarreness, with frightening ease.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jennings’ performance as the vexing playwright who takes Miss Shepard under his wing. Bennett’s inner monologue is depicted as a separate persona, also played by Jennings, and we learn a lot about his strained friendship and character via this unique and clever technique. However, the film rarely breaks to examine Bennett himself, choosing to focus almost entirely on Shepard. We see the story play out through his bespectacled eyes as Jennings stares wistfully out the French windows of his pokey London townhouse, all the while interesting aspects to his character gently waft away. Whether it’s his own familial struggles or closeted homosexuality, Bennett’s own story is left unexplored in favour of sharing more comical odd couple antics with his kooky elderly squatter.

Also, much like the immovable vessel in which Sheperd lives, the plot goes literally nowhere. For all its peculiar characters and thematic exploration of ageing, The Lady in the Van is disappointingly bereft of forward narrative motion. Events are dotted here and there to demonstrate the passage of time, but the characters remain oddly unchanged throughout the sprawling 20-year narrative.

The collection of neighbours that surround Bennett’s house, including seasoned thespians such as Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour, just gossip and smirk at the peculiarity of the situation. Their thoughts and actions towards Shepard are barely developed at all, leaving the entire supporting cast as flat and two-dimensional caricatures.

Even Jim Broadbent is dealt a rough hand; he plays Underwood, a sinister figure from Shepard’s past that comes a-knocking every so often to collect payment. What for is left a mystery, until a wholly unsatisfying and rushed explanation in the final 10 minutes sweeps the entire subplot under the carpet.

The Verdict: 5/10

It isn’t without merit, but The Lady in the Van is a disappointingly aimless attempt at examining themes such as living with guilt, empathy and growing old. Smith is an irritable delight, but the meandering plot and poorly constructed supporting cast left me feeling a little cold.

The Lady in the Van is in cinemas across Australia now.

This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.

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