A series of film reviews and opinion pieces from a film student and all round movie lover! Happy reading!
Directed By: Nicholas Hytner
Written By: Alan Bennett
Produced By: Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones, Kevin Loader
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Based on the memoirs of author, playwright, screenwriter and actor Alan Bennett and also the stage production of the same name, The Lady In The Van chronicles the relationship formed between the somewhat reclusive, introverted writer and an unkempt, derelict lady living in a van outside his North London apartment.
The film adaption of his published work immediately appears to be faithful to the “mostly true story” through stylistic choices and various metafictional approaches.
A busy man, Bennett is a friend of everybody’s in the neighbourhood and a generous, polite soul who keeps himself organised and highly respectable. What the film is able to address quite well is the process of writing and how it varies between individuals.
What Bennett is able to learn from his time with the lady in the van is highly significant; stemming from cliches such as ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ or even the E.M. Forster quote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”.
Being extracted from the memoirs of the screenwriter, The Lady in The Van certainly achieves in bringing the genuine autobiographical touch to screen.
The portrayal of Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) is rather fascinating, particularly in the introduction and onward approach. As the memoirs appear to have seamlessly transitioned into the screenplay, a lot of Bennett can be found in the writing through narration and dialogue, some of which includes Bennett talking to himself.
Splitting his persona in two makes for a wonderful insight into the mind of a writer. Although the exterior appearance of his new vehicle-dwelling neighbour would suggest deep mental instability, it would seem that behind closed doors, Bennett is a little odd in his own way.
As the film unfolds, the sweet and charming qualities begin to surface, however they never reach the level of a film such as 2013’s Philomena for example, a film with a loosely similar narrative. The middle class writer gradually learning more about an initially irritating woman, only to emerge the other side with a newfound respect for her; the stories are similar for the most part, but there is a lot more to appreciate and gain from the journey of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan compared to that of Jennings and Smith.
Where such a potential emotional resonance falls flat is with certain storytelling elements, most prominently in the passing of time. Mary (or Margret) Shepard (Smith) was offered the temporary use of Bennett’s driveway which she accepted and proceeded to stay for a staggering fifteen years…
This is a fascinating story element based on actual events, however the way the film tells the story over time feels very immediate and not drawn out over one and half decades. Without the understanding of time, place and a journey of some sort, the impact between these two characters feels flat and heavily lacking.
One of the film’s strengths is the way in which it’s able to explore the dynamic between the two central characters, which in turn serves as an interesting observation of middle class life and the way in which citizens react to adversity.
With an uninvited curmudgeon lurking out the front of various family’s apartments and causing quite a stir with residents, it’s interesting to see how the film depicts both the snobbery and generosity of middle class London through both the protagonist and supporting cast.
It highlights prejudice, bigotry and all round intolerance whilst also celebrating the kindness (albeit reluctant) of people such as Mr. Bennett.
A mostly sweet and charming picture, The Lady In The Van manages to execute the difficult balance of humour and pathos, whilst adding intolerability and stress into the mix. The longevity of the story isn’t presented as well as it could have been, which ultimately left the film emotionally flat and unfulfilled.
It’s a stylistic piece with some unconventional elements that could polarise viewers, yet for the most part it seems like a fitting and appropriate story for such approaches that will satisfy most audiences.
The transition from book to play and now to the big screen seems to work and appear like a natural progression for such a peculiar story.
Whilst Smith is tremendous as the unhinged lady in the van, it’s ultimately Alex Jennings’ story, and the audience ultimately come out of the film with a greater understanding of who he was rather than the woman that greatly impacted his life.