The Lady in the Van – Review

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It’s been close to a decade since we were last able to indulge in the latest Nicholas Hytner endeavour, with the release of The History Boys all the way back in 2006. And talking of lengthy spells of time, The Lady in the Van marks 16 years since Maggie Smith first undertook the role of Miss Shepherd, on stage. Another number that may as well be thrown into the mix is 15 years, which is the amount of years the aforementioned, elderly woman, was parked outside the abode of the esteemed playwright, Alan Bennett.

Hytner has brought Bennett’s popular, self-referential, autobiographical play to the big screen, during the time he spent living in Camden Town, London – where the notorious local, Miss Shepherd, lived wherever she saw fit. Floating around the area, having had enough of listening to the music lessons, she drives her van, where she lives, ever so slightly down the road, and decides – having been given guidance from the Virgin Mary (outside the Post Office, apparently) that she is to set up shop outside Bennett’s (Alex Jennings) house. Encumbered by her volatile presence, Bennett kindly provides charity to this unappreciative, obnoxious, vulgar and most importantly, pungent new neighbour – but as the years pass he grows oddly fond of her, and becomes curious as to Miss Shepherd’s elusive past.

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Working as a tender, if somewhat slight drama, here’s a film that would find a real home, showing on the BBC on a Sunday afternoon, thriving in everything that makes British cinema of this nature so indelible and charming. Smith is in remarkable form, playing a role that is so suited to her sensibilities as an actress, it’s as though she dreamt up the part herself. But that’s not to say it’s a walk in the park for her, as she brings a distinctive, endearing sense of vitriol to the part, which didn’t even seem possible beforehand. She has been blessed with a commendable screenplay though, written by the wordsmith Bennett himself, with a plethora of memorable one liners that ensure a consistent stream of comedy, in a film that balances the profound with the farcical, while maintaining the whimsicality throughout.

That being said, the final quarter of an hour does test the patience of the viewer, with an inclination to become even more meta and surrealist – not to mention completely bonkers. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth, as while there is something almost magical and ethereal about this mysterious, eponymous presence, Hytner uses up enough artistic licence to last to his next production. Which, if his recent spell is anything to go by, could be a few years away yet.

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