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The Lady in the Van (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van


Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Taylor, Jim Broadbent, David Calder, James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, Samuel Barnett, Geoffrey Streatfield and Clare Hammond.

Screenplay by Alan Bennett.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  104 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Based upon a true story, The Lady in the Van is both heartfelt and in many ways tragic.  British writer Alan Bennett has made something of a cottage industry out of his chance relationship with an elderly homeless woman – The Lady in the Van was originally a book, then Bennett translated it to a play, and now he has written it as a screenplay.  And while it is a sweet and touching story, it does not appear to be the most natural subject matter for a film.

Interestingly, the lady in the title is not the main character of the story, though she looms large over every frame.  Instead the main character is Bennett himself – though the character is never named, just played by Alex Jennings as a shy, closeted, moderately successful British playwright with serious mother issues.  In fact, in the film there are two Bennetts; the actual man, as well as an imaginary friend that is Bennett the writer, observing and commenting on the real man’s life.

Soon after Bennett moves into a new row home in a gorgeous but funky little London neighborhood, he comes into contact with the title character.  Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is an obviously mentally disturbed woman who lives in her old van, which is parked on the street.  She has been a regular in the neighborhood for a while now, the people who live there are good-hearted and progressive and allow her the space, even giving her food and clothing to make things easier for her.  Not that she really seems to appreciate it, she never even thinks to thank people for their kindnesses, and she is often mistrustful of people’s intentions.

This kind of character could be insufferable, but as played my the luminous Dame Maggie Smith, Miss Shepherd is by far the most interesting character in the film.

As Bennett comes to know the odd old lady, a strange friendship grows between them.  Then when a city ordinance means she has to move her van off of the street, he agrees to allow her to park her van in his driveaway for a few months.  A few months turns into 15 years.  Over the years, Bennett comes to learn more about the woman – a former nun and concert pianist – who has come to such an ignoble fate.

It is an odd but very sweet little story which ends up being much more touching than you would expect.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: April 19, 2016.

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