The Lady in the Van

Lady in the Van doesn’t command much attention, but it’s love at first sight for good old Maggie Smith.

Based on a 1970s biographical drama of the same name by noted British playwright Alan Bennett, The Lady in the Van is a “mostly true story” as mentioned at the beginning of the film. That’s because Bennett had to put up with an old homeless woman for 15 years by allowing her to live in her van in his driveway. Then in 1999, Bennett cast Maggie Smith as the titular hobo in his own play. Ironically, Smith plays the same character on screen little over 15 years later.

Smith plays Mary Shepherd, an old woman literally living out of her van. She moves from house to house looking for parking space and is mostly a grumpy old woman who doesn’t take kindly to anyone. She is extremely unhygienic and doesn’t seem to care either. She is also a bully, and a tough one for her age. But there’s something about Mary (no, that’s a different film) that is equally poignant. She knows this and uses it to get almost everything she wants, including couple more vans! Meanwhile, Bennett, although always reluctant to Mary’s emotional extortion, finds it humane to accommodate her. He is often seen talking to himself when there are two of him in the same frame. One is Bennett in the film and the other is Bennett the playwright scripting this story. This double imagery is also used as an allegory to illustrate his internal conflicts. One of which is the involuntary fondness he finds for Mary when he should be taking care of his aged mother living elsewhere. But after moving into his driveway, Bennett slowly learns that Mary is not the person he and everyone else think she is.

It’s a bit of a mystery for us too until we learn Mary’s background, her real name, and why she’s so bitter yet fragile at the same time. While all this plays out slowly, albeit with typical British humour, the film is only enjoyable because of Maggie Smith. Her shrill voice, her piercing eyes, frail one moment, then boisterous the next, Smith is simply exceptional at her age. At certain points through the film you just want to reach out and hug her. She is that effective.

It’s not the biggest dramedy of the year and not even the funniest, but The Lady in the Van is bound to please just about anyone. And like the titular character, it’s a film hard to love, but once you do, it’s equally hard to resist. 

Rating: ★★★☆☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.