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The Lady in the Van - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Lady in the Van
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

The Lady in the Van is the kind of movie that's pleasant enough, engaging while you watch it, relatively forgettable when it's over. If there's any lasting impression, it's Maggie Smith as the title character. This woman, now 81 years old, never ceases to impress. It's hard to imagine how good this movie might have seemed with someone else in the role. Smith makes anything she's in better.

The story here has a bit of a history. The script is by Alan Bennett, based on his memoir, which was also a play before made into this movie. And, as stated in the opening titles, it's "mostly a true story." It's based on the experience Bennett himself had having a homeless woman living in a van in his driveway in London for fifteen years. Bennett, by the way, also wrote The History Boys (2006).

Bennett himself is played by Alex Jennings here, and maybe this is unfair of me, but I found the portrayal somewhat grating. That's no particular reflection on Jennings's acting per se; the character himself just never managed to be all that compelling. Why he is so passive about a squatter in his driveway for literally a decade and a half remains a mystery. Granted, he actually tells her she can move her van into his driveway. Somehow he rationalizes that it will be easier than dealing with her van parked on the street. Bennett interacts with several neighbors on his block, all of whom are just to polite to complain about this homeless lady's van parked at intervals in front of their houses. That is, until it gets parked permanently in Bennett's own driveway.

But Bennett also employs this odd conceit regarding his own character, where there's the Bennett who lives his life and the Bennett who writes about it -- Jennings plays them separately, even though we are meant to see that they are the same person. This aspect of the story gets a little tedious, seeing Bennett argue with himself, often two of him in split screen. He struggles with whether to write about Mary, or Margaret (depending on who you ask), more than once indicating that although he resists making her a story to tell, nothing else is going on in his life that's more interesting. One could argue, of course, that having a lady living in your driveway for fifteen years is far more interesting than anything happening in most people's lives. It's pretty damn weird, in any case.

The lady herself -- Mary or Margaret -- is just this side of off her rocker, and it's easy to see how she would be massively exasperating. She is also by far the most interesting person in this story, and in this movie, particularly as portrayed by Maggie Smith. She wound up resigned to this unique fate due to being incapacitated with guilt after a cyclist ran into her windshield and died. It's the cyclist's own fault, but Mary blames herself.

She also gets regular visits from a guy who has evidently blackmailed her, played with an impressive comb-over by Jim Broadbent as a guy unusually slimy for him. His purpose in the story never quite crystalizes, and his part is a lot smaller than you'd expect from an actor of his caliber.

It's fairly easy to see how this story could be told well as a theatre piece, and the transition to film is somewhat flawed. The script is decent but feels unpolished. But the more time we spend with Mary, and thus Maggie Smith, the more delightful The Lady in the Van is to watch. This is very different from the types of parts we're used to seeing Smith in these days, but in her case the casting couldn't have been better. The movie itself may be relatively forgettable, but Maggie Smith's performance isn't.

Maggie Smith is THE LADY IN THE VAN.

Overall: B
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