×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Lady in the Van’

A grandly ornery Maggie Smith is the chief draw in this slight, innocuously enjoyable adaptation of Alan Bennett's memoir.

With:
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, Clare Hammond.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3722070/

If crotchety upper-class vagrant Mary Shepherd hadn’t turned up on the North London doorstep of the celebrated playwright Alan Bennett, he might have had to make her up — if only to give Maggie Smith, our veritable Garbo of dingbat hauteur, one of the most tailor-made leading roles of her late career. Then again, perhaps Shepherd was partly his idea: The tension between life experience and authorial invention is the one complicating factor in “The Lady in the Van,” an otherwise heart-coddling, crowdpleasing study of two eccentric introverts — on opposite sides of the poverty line — finding common ground in more ways than one. Low on narrative drive, and marred by a misjudged final-act swerve into extravagant whimsy, Nicholas Hytner’s amiable luvvie-fest is enlivened by Smith’s signature irascibility; silver-dollar auds should turn up, if not in droves, at least in healthy vanloads.

“When I write about this, people will say it’s too much about s–t,” muses Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), as he wearily clears the feces left in his driveway — repeatedly, and without so much as a whisper of apology — by Smith’s homeless harridan. That’s an accusation few are likely to level at Hytner’s bright, polite film, the erstwhile National Theatre director’s third big-screen transfer of a Bennett play, following 1994’s “The Madness of King George” and 2005’s “The History Boys.” It’s plainly the slightest of the three, but has few pretensions to the contrary. An introductory title card declares the pic “a mostly true story,” breezily begging our pardon for its playfulness. Bennett’s play, based in turn on a memoir published in 1989, openly questioned its own substance and validity in the text; it was less personal for the past stories it recalled than for the present-tense artistic insecurity it admitted in telling them.

Such an intimate metatextual conceit is easier to sustain on stage than it is onscreen. Hytner and Bennett (once more adapting his own work) employ a tricksy device here, physically depicting the playwright as two identical beings in constant, argumentative conversation with each other. One repeatedly questions and counters the other’s narration as it unfolds, immediately alerting auds to potential exaggeration and confabulation in its remembrance of Shepherd, an eccentric nomad of indeterminate old age who mysteriously descended on Bennett’s leafy, upscale Camden Town crescent in 1973 and proceeded to live there, in a series of clapped-out leisure vehicles, for the better part of 15 years. It’s a somewhat fussy solution that nonetheless spares the film several reams of disembodied voiceover, and gives Jennings — whose effectively mannered Bennett impression has been amply practiced onstage — the additional challenge of separately characterizing the writer’s conflicting selves.

Even in duplicated form, however, the dithering playwright is a less overtly engaging figure than Shepherd, and however much the film frames itself as a story of Bennett’s personal and creative growth, a delighted audience is still going to view it as “The Maggie Smith Show.” It’s one she plays with broad, gusty aplomb, at least after a more downcast prologue that sets up the film-spanning mystery behind her circumstances: A vehicle collision is heard over a black screen, before the camera sheds light on a panicked Shepherd dodging the police, the smashed windshield of her van streaked with blood. Years later, it appears that neurotic evasiveness has become her standard state, albeit in more strident fashion.

When Bennett moves into Gloucester Crescent, a close-knit, middle-class enclave of London arts folk, in 1970, Shepherd is already antagonizing the residents, testing their liberal generosity with blunt demands and misanthropic rants. Classical music, in particular, aggravates her, with children practicing instruments getting the full brunt of her ire; any questions about her presence or plans for moving on are met with statements of daft Catholic conviction about her prescribed path. Smith plays her with equal parts antsy mania and arch, withering skepticism toward all surrounding her — the latter characteristic very much the actress’s stock-in-trade. That already gives the performance one more note than her much-garlanded autopilot work on TV’s “Downton Abbey,” but it’s enjoyable on the same persona-based terms.

Few actors could grant quite such imperiousness to a character otherwise so disenfranchised, but in doing so, Smith makes an odd sense both of her situation and the inability of others to intervene: Neither lovable nor wholly intolerable, Shepherd colonizes her immediate square footage in the very manner of a performing grande dame. In Bennett, whose working-class roots and guarded homosexuality already make him a neighborhood misfit, she senses a kindred spirit — though his own gestures of kindness to her are reluctant, coerced by social guilt and a dislocated sense of duty to his own mother (Gwen Taylor). When he offers her the opportunity to park in his driveway, initiating what what turns out to be an informal, 15-year traveler tenancy, at least one of his split selves rolls his eyes.

Hytner and Bennett dramatize this evolving turf war of sorts — one that gradually yields mutual understanding, if not quite friendship — in ambling, semi-sitcom style. The puzzle of Shepherd’s backstory, stoked by occasional nighttime visits from an apparent blackmailer (a leering Jim Broadbent), isn’t so urgent as to impinge on the general mood of day-to-day carry-on. Only as the ailing Shepherd prepares for the next stage of her journey does the tone briefly dip into something approaching profundity. An 11th-hour flight of spiritual fancy — the product, it seems, of the onscreen writer’s liberated emotional sensibility — falls decidedly flat. It is, however, one of the few ambitious visual flourishes in an evenly lit, perkily cut production that could as easily premiere in a calm Sunday-night slot on BBC television. George Fenton’s sprightly, tinkling score is its least anonymous technical facet, though perhaps its most excessive.

A tony gallery of British stalwarts fills the caricature-heavy roster of supporting roles, including Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and an incidentally hilarious Deborah Findlay as Bennett’s posh neighbors. James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett — all graduates, of course, of Bennett’s “History Boys” class — pop up in passing cameos.

Toronto Film Review: 'The Lady in the Van'

Reviewed at Sony Pictures screening room, London, Aug. 26, 2015. (In Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 104 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.)/Sony Pictures Releasing (in U.K.) release of a TriStar Prods., BBC Films presentation. Produced by Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones, Kevin Loader. Executive producers, Christine Langan, Ed Wethered, Miles Ketley, Charles Moore.

Crew: Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Screenplay, Alan Bennett, adapted from his memoir and stage play. Camera (color, HD), Andrew Dunn; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, George Fenton; production designer, John Beard; art director, Tim Blake; set decorator, Niamh Coulter; costume designer, Natalie Ward; sound (Dolby Digital), Rashad Omar; supervising sound editor, Christopher Ackland; re-recording mixers, Dafydd Archard, Craig Irving; visual effects supervisor, Tim Caplan; visual effects, Union VFX; stunt coordinator, Derek Lea; assistant director, Nige Watson; line producer, Faiza Hosenie; second unit director, Kevin Loader; casting, Toby Whale.

With: 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, Clare Hammond.

More Film

  • New Fox Appoints Wayne Borg to

    New Fox Appoints Wayne Borg to Los Angeles Studio Role

    Wayne Borg, who has headed the Fox Studios Australia operations in Sydney for the past four years, has been appointed president and general manager of studios at New Fox. He will relocate from Australia to Los Angeles. Fox Studios Australia, which is to remain part of 21st Century Fox and will become part of Disney [...]

  • Lisa Borders Time's Up

    Time's Up President Lisa Borders Resigns

    Lisa Borders has resigned as president of Time’s Up, she and the organization announced on Monday. Borders is resigning due to family issues, she said in a statement. Time’s Up COO Rebecca Goldman will now serve as interim CEO. More Reviews Film Review: Keira Knightley in 'The Aftermath' Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in [...]

  • Keira Knightly as "Rachael Morgan" in

    Film Review: Keira Knightley in 'The Aftermath'

    Less widely seen (and acclaimed) than it deserved to be, James Kent’s debut feature “Testament of Youth” was one of the great recent love-in-wartime dramas, translating the intimate romance and sprawling human tragedy of Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir with a grace and heft worthy of its David Lean allusions. Four years on, it’s not hard [...]

  • Inside Amazon's New Feature Film Strategy

    Amazon's New Film Strategy: Straight-to-Service Titles and Starry Sundance Buys

    It was close to midnight when Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke got the text. The company had failed in its quest to acquire “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a body image dramedy that captivated Salke when she saw it at Sundance. A sales agent on the project messaged her to say that a competitor offered a [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab

    TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab (EXCLUSIVE)

    The TorinoFilmLab has announced the 20 feature projects and five story editor trainees who have been selected to take part in the 2019 edition of ScriptLab, an initiative focused on the development of fiction feature film scripts in early development stage. Beginning in March, this year’s participants will team up with filmmakers from around the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content