Britain’s favourite golden oldie is back as Maggie Smith stars in the thoroughly English comedy, The Lady in the Van. Maggie was on excellent form as always, keeping us laughing from start to finish, and the rest of the film provided its own unique fictional and factual entertainment.
The film starts with the middle aged writer and social hermit, Alan Bennett, (Alex Jennings), moving into a new home in Camden Town, and everything seems to be going spiffingly.
But then a rather unusual character enters the script. For one day, poor innocent Alan is walking down the street when he stumbles across a rather grubby old van, and an even grubbier old lady within.
This strange little woman, known as Mary Shepard, (Maggie Smith), lives in her van and moves from street to street where she parks on the roadside, (via guidance from the Virgin Mary one might add), and irritates her neighbours from dawn to dusk with her rude and eccentric rants.
But when the mischievous Mary decides to move into Alan’s road, the posh residents kick up a fuss, and somehow the dear biddy manages to weasel her way into Alan’s sizeable drive-van and all.
However, what starts off as being a temporary charitable convenience, ends up being a turbulent fifteen year companionship, as Alan begins to feel emotionally responsible for the clearly very troubled Mary.
As time goes on Alan gradually discovers there is more to Miss Shepard than meets the eye, and this colourful character is really just a scared and somewhat scarred old lady, with a secret past.
In this tragically comic film, Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings were truly excellent as always. Their style and performance was both entertaining and moving, and felt authentic from start to finish.
The split persona of Alan, from writer to everyday man was interesting in terms of character development, theme exploration and narrative enhancement.
The story also reflected a quaint idea of an old and lost British community life and normal social relationships. Miss Shepard challenged the image of the cute old lady. Mr. Bennett reflected an interesting vision of the modern artist, and embodied the type of men known to his generation; the socially trapped and sexually constricted.
The fact that the story is based on reality makes it even more inviting and thought-provoking. Alan Bennett who is known for his plays, The Madness of King George III, Forty Years On, and The History Boys, came to life as a true character in this personal and intruding narrative.
The life of Miss Shepard is in many ways heart-breaking, for she was an educated and successful women who led a complex life, but became her own jailer when her life circumstances and mental health imprisoned this vibrant person’s whole world.
The only criticism of the film was that the narrative structure was not entirely coherent. It moved around erratically and without smooth or logical transitions. The links between the present and the past were not always clear or fully explained, and this led to a sense of general confusion and probably took away from the impact the film sought to achieve.
However, it was a cozy English treat, with a great mix of comedy and sincerity, and one which is well worth seeing if you want to brighten up your dark winter nights and see the one and only Maggie Smith doing what she does best.
By Caroline Malcolm