Film Review: The Lady In The Van

To me, Alan Bennett is the name of a playwright, and nothing more. I certainly couldn’t name a play he wrote or tell you anything about him. 1850, 1950 or alive today I wouldn’t have a clue. So when I saw the trailer for The Lady in the Van I took it entirely on face value. I just soaked in the light hearted, silly and implausible story, set against a backdrop of witty humour and charming fun and made a mental note to keep an eye out for its release.

The first, and slightly obvious, thing to say about The Lady in the Van is that it is aimed as the tea and biscuits market. The older, retired, “goes to the cinema on a wet Sunday afternoon to sleep of the indulgence of roast beef, potatoes and a Yorkshire pudding” viewer. It knows that it is playing to its audience in the same way as Marigold Hotels, Mr Holmes and Helen Mirren films knew too. It’s grown up, analogue film making, where the story and the characters run riot over any idea of special effects or CGI trickery.

Alan Bennett - The Lady In The Van

Second, however, is the fact it’s a true story, one that Bennett novelised in a book, before dramatising as a stage play. I had originally thought it pure cinematic fiction so when I found this out it cast the film into a totally different light. This change in narrative direction and accuracy within my mind meant I suddenly saw the film not as the comic idea I creamed from the trailer but as an actual timeline. The characters suddenly became real, no longer mere objects of a writer’s imagination design to tell a story. While I was still blind to who, and what, the grander picture was – it was still just a lady in a van living on a man’s driveway – the inclusion of truth meant it somehow lost the underlying safety net of comedy and humour.

The story focuses on Alan Bennett himself, as it’s his driveway that the van comes to reside upon, and, if I’m honest, the whole tale ends up being a little bit too centred on him. It ends up feeling vain and egotistical and too often the story seemed to force itself back to explain the ‘I’ rather than the ‘we’. It couldn’t let the story run free without constantly tethering it back to Bennett’s singular point of view. As mentioned, I don’t know anything about Bennett in real life, and while I dislike the way the story is so orbital to Bennett, the character created by Alex Jennings, I found completely engrossing. He’s presents a character that is infuriating at times as he passively meanders through life with a passive deprecation that drives you to distraction and yet constantly his turn of phrase, and observation on life, concisely nails the emotion you feel.

While Jennings’ performance of the character is laudable, the film interacts two versions of Bennett in a deconstruction of the internal and external personalities and often this became confusing. There were just too many occasions where, for a brief moment, I’d have to clarify in my head which was who and what was why. It would break my concentration and connection to the film, like blinking at the wrong moment, without appearing to add anything to the greater narrative position.

Maggie Smith & Alex Jennings - The Lady In The Van

Maggie Smith plays the titular ‘lady’ – Miss Shepherd. And while, like Jennings, she convinces in her role and  forces you to see the character rather than the actor, I couldn’t help by feel she was simply revising her standard “grumpy old lady” act. Just this time with added dirt. More annoying than this standard repetition from Smith, though, is the fact that her character is presented in a very hidden and mysterious way. She has virtually no backstory and that’s such a shame because her character looks like she has a fascinating tale to tell. It’s a fundamental problem of a story told from one point of view, that unless Bennett knew we don’t get told, it’s fact not fiction after all, but it didn’t stop me longing to spend a bit more time with Miss Shepherd and a bit less time with Bennett.

The film has some plus points, that cannot be argued, but the overriding thought that constantly spun round my head was simply, whether true or not, “this cannot have really happened, can it?” So many times I sat there wanting to mutter to myself that “he’d had said no days, weeks, months ago”. Apparently she lived on his drive for nearly 20 years without question. It’s just too removed from reality to be acceptable or believable. Passive, deprecating or submissive, I watched the film constantly replaying every interaction in my head wondering how I would react, and whether correct or not, I constantly started most responses with “No”. I just couldn’t relax into the idea that Bennett would let this happen.

Worse than its implausible truth is the fact that it ticks along in a pleasant non-threatening way, it manages to change gear from time to time, getting from first into second, but it never feels fast. It’s not boring, slow or monotonous, it just never comes to life. I always felt I was waiting for something to happen, for the real story or the big reveal to arrive. It just stays flat and one dimensional and like Bennett seems to lack that cutting edge, or that ability to stand up for itself.

The Lady In The Van Stage Show

I think it’s problem all stems from the fact that narratively it’s designed as a stage play and not a cinematic film. I think the confines of a stage suit the confines of its story better. It revolves around the introspective relationship between Bennett and Shepherd, through a van on a driveway. It’s static and condensed and the film struggled to keep within this confine. It’d drift off to a different street or a new house, because it could, it has that freedom but it meant the dialogue appeared lost as it took the focus away from the characters in a way not possible on stage.

For me, the Lady in the Van looked good but fell short because like too many other adaptations from the stage it tried to tweak the recipe and hope for success rather than start from scratch. The performances are good and it’s inoffensive viewing with the tale of Bennett’s Lady in the Van leaving you impossibly intrigued, but my lasting impression was simply that I’d have enjoyed it far more seeing it in it’s natural home on the stage rather than on screen.

6 out of 10 stars (6 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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