The Lady in the Van

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If the van is rockin'...

Last week I watched 45 Years. It had a lot of great moments, especially watching two incredible actors interact (one being nominated for an Oscar). I thought when I sat down to watch The Lady in the Van, it would also be a tour de force for Dame Maggie Smith. Well, the force wasn’t with her. In fact, I was hoping this twit of a playwright would’ve just pushed her van down another street, so we could’ve gotten another story.
I thought a lot about a movie I saw a few years ago and loved — Philomena. That worked because the cranky old woman (Dame Judi Dench) was actually nice once in awhile. She could also be witty and offer words of wisdom. When we found out why she was so angry, it was warranted. She also had a younger man helping her out, and he could be a jerk, but also funny and sweet at times. These are all traits that perhaps the filmmakers of The Lady in the Van thought they had, but they didn’t. In fact, when we finally find out what the church did to her that was so bad…well, it wasn’t all that bad. Certainly not enough to drive her to this brink of craziness, so obviously she had other issues. That means you have to decide if spending two hours with a mean woman, who never once is cute, is worth your time. Or the gimmick of listening to a nasally playwright tell this true story with two versions of himself (I never thought I’d be saying I’d miss Tom Hardy as twins from Legend). Neither version of himself is remotely interesting. It felt like they were there to merely tell us, “You write, I live.”
Yeah, yeah, we get it already.
Reclusive playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) let’s Miss Shepherd (Smith) park her van in his driveway, for what ends up being 15 years. It makes a little sense, when we see a few people in the town harassing her out on the street (sometimes it’s young hooligans, other times authorities towing her van away). It’s a mystery as to why he’d ever let her in the house to use his bathroom. Especially when he has to spend half an hour cleaning up afterwards (including the times she doesn’t make it to the bathroom, but uses his driveway). Perhaps the liberal guilt he and his neighbors had (who would bring her food while she was living on the street), is the same liberal guilt that is going to convince audiences this is great cinema. Perhaps it made a fine stage play. It just doesn’t work well as a film. At least not with this screenplay.
Perhaps the subtle way Bennett realizes he should be living his life a bit more could’ve worked. We see him merely taking care of his ailing mother. We see him talk with neighbors and engage in a series of relationships (or one-night stands). Yet Miss Shepherd never says anything all that profound. In fact, neither does Bennett — and he’s a well-known playwright!
It would’ve been more rewarding to see a bit more done with Dominic Cooper and James Corden, who pop up in small roles.
I’m guessing most will find this ornery oldster a lot of fun; especially the Downton Abbey crowd. I just felt she wasn’t an eccentric, but a filthy vagrant with mental problems.
It’s not that enjoyable to watch an angry person for two hours, especially when revelations are made they just don’t have the emotional heft they should.
Smith is the first actress to play Miss Shepherd on stage, and the stage is probably where the story should’ve stayed.
It was Oscar bait, and the Academy wasn’t biting. The critics were. It’s getting 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film just wasn’t interesting enough to give it more than 2 stars out of 5.