DVD Review - The Lady in the Van

This is the kind of story that would be interesting to tell at a dinner or cocktail party, but, as told, it doesn't seem like enough to fill a two-hour film. It could have been enough, but deep digging doesn't appear to be a goal here.

Based on the autobiographical play by Alan Bennett, this film is really about putting two clashing personalities together and watching as they form an unlikely friendship. In this case, it's a grown man paired with an elderly woman. On the surface, it's a dynamic similar to Philomena (2013).

Two-time, Oscar-winner Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite) stars as Miss Mary Shepherd, a very elderly woman who is homeless. She lives inside of her van. She parks her vehicle along the streets in front of various homes in the area of Camden Town, which is part of northern Greater London. The people in the neighborhood are aware of her and tolerate her. They occasionally try to help her, but Mary is too prideful and stubborn, and seems content to live out the rest of her life in the van, fueled by nightly prayers.

Alex Jennings (The Queen and Belle) co-stars as Alan Bennett, an actor-turned-writer who moved to Camden Town in 1970 where he met Mary. He lives alone but he does talk to himself in a Charlie Kaufman-kind of way, a la Adaptation, except Alan doesn't have a twin, although it seems like he does.

Director Nicholas Hynter who is probably best known for directing The History Boys has Jennings literally playing double. It's a device that couldn't have been pulled off on-stage. I don't know how it could have been pulled off instead, aside from having Jennings monologue or speak directly to camera. It's clever perhaps, but it's time that could have been spent with other actors.

What's great is that this film is not short on talented actors. Hynter employs the entire, living cast of The History Boys in this movie. Unfortunately, each one is only used in one scene briefly. Each one is basically a cameo. It's fun to see all the great, young actors, but quite frankly, it's a waste of their talents. Instead of having Jennings talk to himself, he should have had more in-depth conversations with the cast of young actors.

For example, it's revealed, yet never said out loud, that Alan is gay. Obviously, he has a thing for handsome, young men, an echo to a story line in The History Boys. Alan has mommy issues. Exploring that with the young men is something the movie could have done. Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey are two actors from The History Boys who cameo and using them more is a road this movie should have traveled. Tovey in particular plays one of Alan's lovers and Cooper played a crush.

Maggie Smith of course gives a great performance. Watching her is a joy and a pleasure. Yet, there's not much more to it that the film engages or confronts. The final scenes suggest more but then the movie sweeps over it. Mary has a history and an incident that made her a homeless woman, but Mary's past is only a mention. That's not enough to invest me in her character or make me care about her.

Two Stars out of Five,
Rated PG - 13 for a brief unsettling image.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.


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