Rather insipid British fare, with some mildly amusing twists on the genre, this is the story of a well-known British writer, Alan Bennett, and the woman who lived in a van parked in his driveway for 15 years. Maggie Smith has a lovely time playing the irascible Miss Shepherd, the homeless woman with a past, a fake name and a temper. She’s the bright spot in this film, which as a whole doesn’t gel.
Perhaps the reason is that the film is more about Alan Bennett’s experience of her, the social awkwardness of dealing with someone who doesn’t fit in, the way in which the people on his street don’t understand and want her to move on, than it is about the lady herself. He is in two minds for most of the film, a character split into his writer self and his personal self, appearing as a double on screen, talking to himself. It’s an interesting choice, and would work well as a piece of theatre, but feels like a surreal element that detracts from the true nature of the story.
And since Smith sparkles, you find yourself wanting to know the mystery of her more than the mysteries of Alan. Who is she? Why is she hiding her name, and who is the awful man who turns up in the dead of night, threatening her? In the course of the film most of this is revealed, and more. The lady who calls herself Miss Shepherd was once a nun, and she also had an amazing talent for music, but she is running from something that threatens to catch up with her. This is where the heart of the film is, in the woman of the title, in the past that broke her, and her oddly hilarious present self, but it’s told in a patchy, incomplete way, often shifting to Bennett for moments that lack excitement and intrigue.
The ending lends from the surreal as well, not fitting well with the nature of the story as a whole, breaking the fourth wall and leaving you feeling strangely dissatisfied. On the whole, the film is a bold attempt to film a memoir in a creative way, and if you view it in that light, it has it’s merits. But you might find yourself wanting more Maggie Smith and stronger insight into her characters story.
EXTRAS: A range of additional material which should please fans of this film. The Making of the Lady In The Van (14 min), a rather insipid and self congratulatory look into the making of the film. The Visual Effects is a short documentary about the effects used to create the films more surreal moments. Pretty interesting actually. One for the Maggie fans, Playing The Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd (6 min), the actress, her director and co star give insights into the performance and character of Miss Shepherd. There is also Commentary with Michael Hytner, which is great if you liked the movie, and some Deleted Scenes.