The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett is the groundbreaking comedian and playwright who collaborated with Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke in "Beyond the Fringe" a revue in the 1960s. In 1987, Bennett did a series of monologues for British television, titled "Talking Heads."
"The Lady in the Van" directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by Bennett concerns a bizarre relationship that the author had with an eccentric pianist supposedly named Mary Shepherd that ran from the seventies to the mid-eighties.
Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is a cranky but likable seventy year-old who happens to be homeless. She resides in her van which she parks wherever she can. As she is running out of undetected places, Shepard parks in front of the residence of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) He reluctantly agrees to let her park in front for a few days. Bennett, who has writer's block, takes to peering at Shepherd in the front lot as a source of welcome distraction. He gradually gives her more and more leeway, to a point, giving her bathroom and garage access while asking her questions.
While actor Maggie Smith does not stretch her acting muscles all that much here---once again she is fretful and antisocial--- she does a fine limber job in juggling both comedy and dramatic weight.
The strength of the movie is in the adept and mysterious story that unfolds bit by bit. Just who is this nationalistic lady named who gives her name as Mary? Is it all true or all fiction? A piano is the only singular thing that can bring her out of her shell.
While the tone is predominately light through most of the film, there are some wonderful strains of darkness. On occasion, the van is attacked and pummelled upon like a besieged sub from WWII, which gives the occupant night terrors. The oft-recognizable Jim Broadbent plays a smarmy ex-constable who would make Patricia Highsmith proud.
Excellent as well is Alex Jennings who surrealistically plays Alan Bennett as a pair: one Alan is a playwright, the other, a hasselled, domestic fret-fly and worry wart.
Humorous indeed are the Monty Python touches here and there that spin wildly at a certain point in the film. This keeps one on his/her toes as well as in stitches.
The transfixing element about "The Woman in the Van" is that it doesn't show its hand all at once. What starts out as a grouchy lady story ends up as something of a suprise with enough gallows humor and heart to keep you guessing.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org