The Lady In The Van has all the ingredients of success. It boasts an award-winning actress, a script adapted from a successful British play, and a director with a proven history of smoothly transferring stage productions to the silver screen. Unfortunately, while Nicholas Hytner’s latest work is beautifully made, with a keen eye for the vulnerabilities and foibles of its characters, nothing can make up for the excruciatingly slow pace.
The film is a ‘mostly true’ account by real-life writer Alan Bennett of his friendship with a homeless woman he allowed to park in his driveway for fifteen years, and it’s to this source the film owes its sense of authenticity. Bennett’s unwilling interest in Margaret is echoed by the guilt surrounding his mother’s slow descent in senility and will resonate with anyone who’s acted as a carer for a friend or family member with mental health difficulties. There is no sickly sweet sentimentality to gloss over an unpleasant, painful situation. Its matter-of-fact honesty captures the endless patience and many small indignities that must be borne, while showing boundless compassion for both the carers and those in need of it.
Maggie Smith delivers a stellar performance as Margaret, the titular lady who trundles about Camden, flustering the well-to-do middle class residents that don’t quite know what to do with her. Her co-star, Alex Jennings, beautifully encapsulates both Bennett’s frustration and patience as he tries to make sense of this strange, troubled woman. There’s an interesting technique used to get around how a large part of the film’s conflict takes place in Bennett’s head, splitting him into Bennett-the-Writer and Bennett-the-Person, who waver between interest in her as a character and empathy for her as a human being. His mental reflections can be amusing, and it allows him to consider his own motivations without stretching the fourth wall too far.
However, the very authenticity that makes this film so human is also what drags it down. If anything it is too true to life, combining vaguely uncomfortable subject matter with a lack of anything actually happening. The characters spend most of their time in ponderous self-reflection, and events wind down to a conclusion without anyone ever making any firm resolutions or confronting any major obstacles. The absolute respect for the issue is commendable, but sadly doesn’t make for particularly riveting viewing.
The most entertaining moments are when Bennett’s narration departs from reality, with conversations he admits never actually happened or statements he never actually made out loud. These instances offer a sense of catharsis, using storytelling in a similar manner to the film Atonement, where a fictional author explicitly gives the characters a different narrative she couldn’t provide in ‘real life’. Ironically, had The Lady In the Van wanted to play more with fantasy and reality, it certainly could have without compromising its integrity.
As it is, the slow drag of events makes it difficult to sit through. Even the dry, intelligent humour and scattering of genuinely amusing incidents are not enough to rescue it from its slow spiral of depression. While some audiences might find it touching and moving, most will find it hard to get through the first half. A somewhat beautiful and thoughtful, but ultimately not particularly engaging, film.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10