The Lady in the Van is about an unusual story that fell into a writer’s lap — well, his driveway, to be accurate. In 1973, a cranky homeless woman named Miss Mary Shepherd parked in front of playwright Alan Bennett’s posh home in London. She stayed for a whopping 15 years. Bennett turned the stranger-than-fiction tale into a hit play and now a somewhat effective film. The Lady in the Van is a poignant exploration of caretaking in the guise of a lighthearted British comedy. If only it rolled up its sleeves a bit more to reveal the raw truths beneath its breezy comic surface.
Celebrated actress Maggie Smith plays the title character — a cantankerous vagrant without a hint of humility. Miss Shepherd moves all over Bennett’s neighborhood, acting like she owns the place. In Smith’s hands, Shepherd’s annoying attitude is oddly charming. She draws us in, making us relish every catty confrontation with Bennett.
Alex Jennings portrays the put-upon playwright. It’s actually a dual role — he plays the Bennett who lives a quiet life in Camden and the writer who tries to make his life more interesting. The two versions of Bennett talk to each other — a touch of whimsy that’s more awkward than engaging.
Although he insists that he’s not taking care of Miss Shepherd, Bennett lets her live outside his door for over a decade. Is he actually concerned about her? Is he selfishly using her for artistic inspiration? The most interesting implication is that Bennett is helping her out of guilt over how he’s treated his ailing mother.
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As time passes and Bennett finds himself further obligated to these two ladies, a stinging truth about caretaking emerges. The film suggests that taking care of people isn’t an interruption in time. When loved ones get sick or strangers come into our lives in need of help, the little devil on our shoulder feels disrupted. But another part of us deep down realizes that this disruption is what’s actually important. For some of us, it takes a long time for that attitude to emerge. Maybe that’s why Bennett let Miss Shepherd stay in his driveway for 15 years.
Unfortunately, that nugget of raw truth is buried under a mound of cloying cuteness. The story is strange and amusing enough without all the little fanciful touches — like the imaginary version of Bennett. Most truly compelling characters grapple with their egos without literally talking to another side of themselves. At least Jennings doesn’t chew the scenery as the imaginary Bennett.
The Lady in the Van is ultimately a sad, somewhat absurd story. If you don’t laugh at it, you’ll cry, Bennett might say. The film is funny in a light, wispy sort of way that never cuts as deep as it should. Comedies like this, with somewhat dark subject matter, give us sugar to help the medicine go down. This one is just a little too sweet.