Stuck in park
The onscreen credit that introduces Nicholas Hytner’s warming but insignificant The Lady in the Van claims that it is “A Mostly True Story,” and the film keeps crawling up its own cutesy narrative bunghole from there. Adapted by playwright Alan Bennett from his own memoir, The Lady in the Van offers more fourth wall-breaking narrative devices than a Tarantino fever dream, but since we’re never that invested in the characters or the story, it doesn’t add up to anything but a self-satisfied distraction.
Maggie Smith plays the title role, a cantankerous eccentric and possible fugitive going by the name of Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman who takes up residence in Alan’s neotrendy Camden driveway. Smith is excellent, of course, somehow pulling off the unplayable role of a wacky, quasi-adorable, life lesson-spouting homeless person without overdosing on condescension and quirk. This is maybe the least annoying version of this sort of character since William Powell in My Man Godfrey.
Now 81 years old and tremendous as ever, Smith excels at playing characters who have stopped caring about what other people think, and the brusque, onion-eating Miss Shepherd sits right in that wheelhouse. But the main character here is actually Alex Jennings as Alan, a bookish and withdrawn playwright of questionable talent. The story comes from his perspective, a closeted gay man who quietly resists the “odoriferous concerto” emanating from the yellow van in his driveway.
Beyond the inherently icky premise of framing a story around a destitute and dying woman teaching a privileged jerk to be slightly less of a privileged jerk, the character of Alan never fully comes to life. The film splits Alan into two different characters struggling for supremacy—Alan the writer and Alan the man. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, narration on top of narration, twee narrative misdirects and a lead character who talks to his own imaginary double.
By the time the real-life Bennett rides up on his bicycle to meet the actor playing Bennett, the film has disappeared into a script gimmick wormhole of its own design. Hytner has a long history with Bennett (Hytner’s films The History Boys and The Madness of King George came from Bennett plays), so perhaps he anticipated an affection that fails to materialize. Alan comes to see Miss Shepherd as his “mother’s derelict counterpart,” but our relation to Alan and his mommy issues is always more assumed than felt.
Outside of Smith’s demented majesty, there’s not a lot to recommend about The Lady in the Van. George Fenton’s score is overly intrusive, too many scenes are shapeless and the story drags whenever Smith is off-screen. Even when the story focuses on Mary, fleshing out her past as a WWII-era ambulance driver, ex-nun and piano prodigy, the script keeps throwing up narrative roadblocks in order to justify turning such flimsy material into a feature film. It’s telling that at the end of the film, Alan pulls out a copy of The Lady in the Van, and it’s a wafer-thin paperback.