The Lady in the Van, rated PG-13
This British film, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is based on actual events that happened more than 40 years ago to Oscar nominated screenwriter Alan Bennett, who wrote the script adapted from his stage play, and is here portrayed by Alex Jennings (who portrayed Prince Charles in The Queen). Bennett and Hytner worked together on 2006’s The History Boys. In an interesting approach, Bennett portrays himself as two characters at odds with each other, both played by Jennings – one as a writer with pen in hand, and the other focused on the world outside of his window.
Two-time Oscar winner Dame Maggie Smith (much loved for her role as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey), stars as Miss Shepherd. The 81 year-old actress received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical for this role. Smith has previously portrayed Miss Shepherd in a stage production in 1999 and in a BBC radio play in 2009.
As the film opens we see an event that takes place while Miss Shepherd is driving her van on a country road that will change the course of her life. She now lives in her van, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, eventually arriving in Bennett’s North London neighborhood. We see how the residents of the neighborhood react to Miss Shepherd as she parks her van in front of their homes.
Bennett is a gay man who lives alone but often has late-night male visitors (humorously assumed to be Communists by Miss Shepherd). He is kind to Miss Shepherd, and eventually they develop a relationship, but you can’t describe Miss Shepherd as a nice person. As we find out more about her (her actual name may be Mary or Margaret), we see some of the pain in her life. We see that she was once an accomplished pianist and also a nun (twice).
As Miss Shepherd lives in her van (maybe as a form of penance?), her bathroom habits (and the results thereof), and her body odor are recurring themes, played for laughs. Eventually, Bennett allows Miss Shepherd to pull her van into his driveway, where she will remain for an incredible fifteen years in the 1970’s and 1980’s until her death.
Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, appears in a small role as Underwood, a gentleman with nefarious motives who periodically visits Miss Shepherd’s van.
Maggie Smith is her usual amazing self in this film, though not likeable nor grateful for the many acts of kindness that are extended to her. Then again, she has led a difficult life and has been wounded by others along the way. She also tells some tall tales that add humor to the story.
Jennings is good in his role as the two Bennetts, but I have to admit while a unique approach, it started to irritate me as the film went on.
The film is rated PG-13 for some adult language. Miss Shepherd’s Roman Catholic faith is portrayed throughout the film.