The Lady in the Van is a sweet comedy starring Maggie Smith as the lady in question and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett and Alan Bennett. Alan Bennett is the real life playwright whose existence was invaded by a mysterious and eccentric lady in a van for 15 years. Alan talked to himself, hence Alex Jennings plays him twice.
My short review of the film is this: yet another life ruined by the Catholic Church.
Mary, or Margaret, or whatever her name is, comes to stay a few weeks and stays for 15 years. She doesn’t reveal her real name. Most of the things she says are mysterious and seemingly nonsense. As the story unfolds things begin to add up. Mary begins to make sense, to tell a story that tracks. It’s slow in coming out.
The story involves accidental deaths, piano playing, music condemned by the nuns as against God, prayers, penance, ambulance driving in France, concerts, transcendence, ascension, and absolution that doesn’t stick. Not necessarily in that order.
When you’re as old as Mary (or Margaret) you have time to get through a lot of things in life.
As the story unfolds, you see how misused and misunderstood Mary was. By her family, by her church, by her friends. The saddest part was she found great, creative inspiration in the keys of a piano and she was denied the pleasure of making music with them. The best part was when Mary got her hands on a piano again. She turned into a glowing, beautiful being.
Alan is dealing with his aging mother and her slow decline into dementia. This story runs parallel to Alan’s telling us about the old lady in the van.
Alan’s also dealing with a parade of young men who come to the house late at night. Mary thinks they are communists because they only appear at night. When Alan finally finds a man who is going to stick around, he stops talking to himself and reverts to being but a single version of himself. This happens at about the same time that Mary breathes her last.
I normally enjoy seeing actors create multiple versions of themselves in the same moment on the screen. I was put off by the way it worked in Alan Bennett’s case. It was Alan’s internal conversation, rather than a totally different person. By the middle of the movie I’d finally accepted it, but it annoyed me for a long time.
The humor kicked in for me about mid-way though the film. Several scenes made me chuckle. It wasn’t a big guffaw kind of humor, but there was humor. It took that long for enough of Mary’s story to be revealed so that it jelled into humor.
Maggie Smith is always the best thing in any film she’s in, and The Lady in the Van was no exception. Her performance was perfection.
A few other actors who did turns as neighbors, doctors, alleged communists, and family include Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper, Frances de la Tour, Gwen Taylor, and Sacha Dhawan. It was a surprisingly large cast, so I’m sorry if I left out your favorite name from among the supporting actors.
Have you seen The Lady in the Van? I’d love to hear what you thought about it.