RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
BY LEE PFEIFFER
It may seem hard to believe in an era in which every personality on screen seems to be wearing a cape and tights but there are some intelligent films still being made for discriminating, mature viewers. The problem is that you often have to search to find them. Case in point: "The Lady in the Van", a 2015 British comedy/drama that found its intended audience but was relegated largely to the art house circuits in big cities. The movie is about as off-beat as you can imagine in terms of the central premise but we are told that it is mostly based on fact. Alex Jennings plays the film's real-life British playwright Alan Bennett, on whose experience the screenplay is based. Jennings was an aspiring playwright in 1974 when he moved to a relatively upscale neighborhood in London's Camden Town section. Bennett was enjoying some success with a show on the West End and was leading a fairly comfortable existence, though - at least in the film- he was frustrated by the fact that he no significant other. As a gay man, his unease was understandable- until 1969 homosexuality was a felony crime in Britain. Coming out of the closet was not something most gay people felt comfortable doing. The film presents Bennett creating his own live-in companion- an imaginary alter-ego with whom he trades barbs and discusses problems ranging from writers block to everyday household chores. His life takes an unexpected turn when a homeless woman arrives on his street driving a barely operable old van. She identifies herself as Mary Shepherd and is about as lovable as a tarantula. Mary becomes the talk of the posh neighborhood, moving her van occasionally to park in front of various houses. Some of the locals are kindly to her while others clearly disdain her, but all of them tolerate her presence and gets used to her. Mary keeps her "alternate side of the street" lifestyle going for several years. The van is her abode and she defends it with pride. She accepts handouts from neighbors but her prickly nature never results in her uttering the words "Thank you". Alan, like most of the locals, regards her with a bit of frustration as well as fascination. When a parking ordinance forces her van off the street, Alan offers his driveway as a place she can park "temporarily". You know how these things go. Before long, Mary has not only established the driveway as a permanent residence but is also making various demands on Alan to allow more privileges. Slowly, the months turn into years and both become accustomed to the bizarre living arrangements.(Mary never enters his home and the resulting effect on her hygiene is played for laughs). The two have a sometimes uneasy relationship but the gentle, meek Alan begins to care about her more than he will even admit to his alter-ego. He is wracked by guilt because his own aging mother is slowly deteriorating both mentally and physically and he feels guilty about having to have her committed to a nursing home. He uses Mary has her proxy so that an act of kindness towards her might help Alan alleviate some of his guilt about his mother.
Ultimately Alan's relationship turns to caregiver. Some of Mary's demands are reasonable (jury-rigging wires from his house so she can watch TV in her van) while others are too extravagant to comply with (constructing a tent so she can indulge in more hoarding of useless objects.) He also learns what the viewer has known from the opening, shocking frames: that Mary is hiding a terrible secret and lives in constant fear of being arrested. She, too, is wracked by guilt because she once killed a motorcyclist in an accident and fled the scene. We also learn that she is being blackmailed by an eyewitness (Jim Broadbent) to the event. Gradually, Alan sees her as a source of material for a writing project. He tracks down her only living relative, a brother who is somewhat estranged from her. He relates some remarkable details about her once-promising life and how it all went wrong when she sacrificed a musical career in order to join a convent. (The Catholic Church and religion play key roles in her life.) Nothing overly dramatic takes place in the leisurely-paced story but there is something remarkable the fact that Alan Bennett allowed this eccentric woman to spend a full 15 years residing in his driveway until her death in 1989.
Bennett published a journal about the experience titled "The Lady in the Van". In 1999, he adapted it into a play starring Maggie Smith. It was a major hit, running over 900 performances on the West End. The play's director, Nicholas Hynter, is a frequent collaborator of Bennett's, having worked with him on adapting Bennett's plays "The History Boys" and "The Madness of King George" for the screen. In 2015 they finally brought "The Lady in the Van" to the screen as well with Maggie Smith reprising the title role. Smith was now of an age where she could be even more convincing as the elderly eccentric and Bennett ensured that the movie was shot in the very house in Camden Town where the actual events took place. For all its charming aspects and the fact that the production presents two extraordinary performances by Smith and Alex Jennings, the end result is a mixed bag that you expect to move you in a more emotional way than it actually does. This is largely because Smith's character remains crusty, self-centered and pretty much an ingrate throughout. In the film's final moments, which details her death, Bennett and Hytner do manage to convey a softening of her persona in the final moments of her life but they then attempt to make her more lovable with an ill-advised funeral sequence in which we see the ghost of Miss Shepherd assuring us that she has found happiness in Eternity. The scene smacks of being a well-intentioned gimmick and seems somewhat out of place with the rest of the film. Jennings, known primarily as a stage actor, gives a marvelous performance as Bennett and manages the considerable achievement of not being overshadowed by the great Dame Maggie. The film starts off rather weakly but becomes more engrossing and satisfying if you stick with it. This is largely due to Bennett slowly unveiling key details about Miss Shepherd's challenges in life and the fact that she missed out on a promising musical career. Although Smith is very amusing in the comedic sequences, she is even more impressive in these dark, dramatic scenes. The end result is a mixed bag. The film is to be commended for presenting that rarest of screen experiences nowadays: an intelligent story aimed at adult audiences who seek fine performances and dialogue rather than mindless explosions. There are uneven and unsatisfying patches throughout but the performances alone merit it for recommended viewing.
Sony has released an impressive special edition Blu-ray of "The Lady in the Van". There are numerous featurettes including extensive interviews with Maggie Smith, Alan Bennett, Alex Jennings and Nicholas Hytner that give some interesting perspectives on the long history of the real life events that inspired the play and film. There is also a director's commentary with Hytner and some deleted scenes, some of which clearly show that Miss Shepherd is actually nt only extremely eccentric but is also suffering from dementia, as evidenced by her belief that she can be elected Prime Minister.