Classic Movie Review: The Lady in The Van (2015)

Posted: September 2, 2016 in Comedy, Drama


Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a moderately successful playwright in the 1970’s.  Bennett lives in Camden, a suburb northwest of London.  Bennett notices a homeless woman, driving an old van throughout the neighborhood, she calls herself Mary Sheppard. (Maggie Smith) Mary, claims to be a nun, but Alan has no way of verifying that at first.  Mary parks her van in Alan’s driveway, and Alan becomes her ersatz caretaker.  One night, while Mary is sleeping, she is awoken by a man named Underwood, (Jim Broadbent) who demands money from her.  Mary has also asked for absolution from a priest for what she terms a sin.  Alan’s mother (Gwen Taylor) stops by to visit Alan, and disparages Mary, but fate takes a far more cruel turn for Alan’s mom, than it does for Mary, who continues to live with Alan for 15 years.  Who is Mary?  Is she really a nun?  What is this secret, which she pays a blackmailer to keep a secret?

The Lady in The Van is a very funny comedy, about middle class Londoners, who want to show how charitable they are in public, but disparages her in private.  The satire is quite biting. In addition to being a comedy, it is quite a touching drama, about the difficulties of aging and the difficulties for those who care for the aging.  Alan Bennett had no reason to become Mary’s caretaker, but they somehow formed a bond.  The screenplay does an interesting thing; it splits the Alan character into two, the one who lives Alan’s life and the one who writes about Alan’s life, so the viewer can visualize all the battles in Alan’s mind, as if he were two distinct people.  It’s also a religious film, in the best sense of the word, it shows that the small kindnesses of many people, mean a lot to one person, but it never feels preachy, and it shows a certain disdain for organized religion, which feels right, given what this woman has gone through.

Maggie Smith is superb as Mary, a woman with a gruff exterior, but a quiet humility, and gentle nobility as well.  Smith brings all these complex characteristics together, and blends them into one outstanding performance.  Alex Jennings has a complex role too, blending deadpan humor with scenes of pathos.  James Corden makes a very short funny cameo, and the ensemble cast plays their roles well.

The direction is good, the pacing is brisk, he gets great performances from his leads, and he also directed the stage play so he knows the material well.

The Lady In The Van:  Mary Mary quite contrary.



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