REVIEW: The Lady in the Van

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Review by Dustin Heller

The Lady in the Van is the new British film based on the true story of Mary Shepherd, an elderly woman who lived in her broken-down van for 15 years in the London driveway of Alan Bennett.  The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner who is most known for his work in the theatre where he directed such hits as Miss SaigonThe History Boys and One Man, and Two Guvnors.

Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings headline the cast as Mary Shepherd and Alan Bennett.  The role of Mary Shepherd is nothing new to Smith as she played the part in both the 1999 theatrical production as well as the 2009 BBC Radio 4 adaptation.  The film is Rated PG – 13 for a brief unsettling image.

The film is based on Alan Bennett‘s unlikely friendship with Mary Shepherd whom he allowed to temporarily park her van in his driveway which turned into a 15-year obligation.   As the years go by, Alan learns more and more about his unconventional guest, for example her real name is in fact Margaret Fairchild and not Mary Shepherd.  The reason for the hidden identity dates back to when Margaret escaped from a mental institution and got into an accident with a motorcyclist and has been hiding from the police ever since.

Aside from this, Alan learns that Margaret was an accomplished musician who was the pupil of the great pianist Alfred Cortot and also played Chopin in concert.  Mary and Alan’s relationship was surely a strained one, but in the end they both benefited from having known one another.

The Lady in the Van is a very slow movie that really never got off the ground for me.  The film is all dialogue and what they have to say isn’t really all that interesting or entertaining in the first place.  Similar to the film Grandma starring Lilly Tomlin from last year, the main character (Mary) is so unlikable that it’s extremely difficult for me to be interested in the film at all.

That’s not to say that Maggie Smith does a poor job–it’s actually the opposite as she thrives in the role–but her character is just written in a way that makes it difficult to get behind her.  The Lady in the Van is definitely a film geared for an older audience and I’m sure they would enjoy much more than I did, but nonetheless I was still hoping to get some level of pleasure from it.  I can’t recommend anyone spending their hard-earned money to see this in the theater.

Grade:  D+

The Lady in the Van opens in Indianapolis on Friday, February 19