Sunday, December 6, 2015

Movie with Abe: The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Released December 4, 2015

Some stories are almost too crazy to be believed, and it’s important to ground them in some way to make their telling more digestible. Such is the case of the titular character here, the eccentric Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who lived on the street and in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) for fifteen years in London. This true story is entertaining and fanciful, and the way it is told here does justice to that, finding a creative outlet and style to make its admittedly wild events feel legitimate, worthwhile, and, above all, a delight to watch.

By the time Bennett moves into his home in Camden, Shepherd is already an established feature of the neighborhood, constantly moving her run-down van, which she insists on painting the most putrid shades of yellow, nearer to someone else’s home. She does not shower or bathe and takes care of whatever bodily functions within the confines of her van. She sees no oddity in her own situation yet feels perfectly at liberty to insist that others behave a certain way around her, not playing music or being too loud even though she is the one encroaching upon their owned space. She acts and speaks like a deranged individual, and somehow she goes on day to day without changing her routine.

Bennett’s arrival signals a gradual change in her experience in the world since he cannot help but be slightly more helpful and charitable to her, even though he would rather not have to deal with her and immediately regrets almost every decision he makes that puts her physically closer to his property. Naturally, she almost never thanks him, and takes for granted his generosity. The bond that develops between them is an endearing but not sentimental one, and it’s marvelous to watch it play out over the course of the film.

The strongest decision employed is to have Bennett become just as strong a focal point, split into two versions of himself, one who lives life and the other who writes about it. That device enhances the lighthearted storytelling here greatly, molding this sensational tale into something just as fragmented as Shepherd’s life was. Smith is typically excellent, so well cast for this role that it’s no surprise she’s played it twice before, both on stage and in a radio adaptation. Jennings is great too, adding just the right dose of bewildered amazement tempered by his imagined split personality. This film is fun and a seemingly appropriate ode to a woman with a complicated life and the famous writer she so influenced.


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