‘The Lady in the Van’ (2015) takes its own backseat
Beyond her turn as the beloved Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series or Violet Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” Dame Maggie Smith may be unknown to most American audiences. A giant of the British stage and screen, Smith has received two Oscars (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) and “California Suite” (1978)), two Emmys for “Downton Abbey” and a Tony for “Lettice and Lovage” (1990). But this great Dame, finding a second wind in her not so twilight years, trades her Downton pomp and circumstance for the grime and acerbity of Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van.
Based off Alan Bennett’s 1989 eponymous book, “The Lady in the Van”(2015) follows writer/playwright Alex Jennings and his neighbors as they cope with the local, homeless leech, Miss Shepherd. Mary Shepherd — in reality, Margaret Fairchild — bumbles from home to home in her van looking for that goldilocks lot free from vandals and nature’s vicissitudes. It is only a matter of time before she chooses Alan as her next host and parks her dingy van in his oh-so-spacious driveway.
As the tale goes, her original stint of a couple weeks lingers for over 15 years until her eventual death. In this time, Mary becomes a local landmark, as her dilapidation and crustiness adds some bite to the otherwise nondescript Camden hamlet. The neighbors may gripe and gossip, but they embrace the inevitable and adopt her at arm’s-length. To Alan, she becomes a welcome nepenthe from the guilt of ignoring his own ailing mother, a companion for his solitary life or perhaps just material for his future magnum opus. Ironically, she also becomes his beard; when neighbors ask, “How’s the old lady?” Mary becomes wife by proxy — and a far more entertaining one at that. His quiet life of late-night homosexual trysts go unnoticed, as Miss Shepherd deems him a closet communist and leaves it at that.
Despite the seeming potential for uproarious comedy, the film relegates the humor to minor set pieces of Mary rolling down the hill in her wheelchair or shooing away generous social workers — moments that add up to a paltry trailer’s worth. The bulk of the film is rather plotless and parks its narrative drive when Mary pulls into Alan’s driveway. Like tailgating a slow driver on the highway, the film slogs on for two hours of repetitive interactions and empty conversations between Alan and his disembodied superego. The lady in the van takes an unfortunate backseat to Alan’s timorous, Hamlet-esque inner conflicts which become mere words, words, words.
The film follows a “Citizen Kane” (1941) structure, as Alan attempts to piece together Miss Shepherd’s past from visitors and family members. However, we only glimpse meager scraps of Mary’s history, which add up to a rather skeletal portrait and leave the emotional center of the film empty. While we do discover that Margaret Shepherd was committed to an institution, was a concert pianist, a former nun and a hit and run driver, director Nicholas Hytner fails to convey Mary’s transformation into her destitute state. Like other films centering on a mysterious woman with similar names (“Lady in the Water” (2006) and “The Woman in Black”(2012)), we must grapple with a fairly enigmatic central female; however, this trope falls flat here, as Hytner ignores the real drama of Margaret’s fall from grace. Her accumulation of ragged clothes and plastic bags is taken as fact, but its genesis is elided. In short, we never discover her Rosebud, that moment when all was lost and her life spiraled into something out of her own control.
Thus, one feels like one of the neighbors, still confused about and disconnected from this mysterious lady in her gauche yellow van and silently wondering when she will go away.
“The Lady in the Van” is playing at the Nugget Theater in Hanover at 4:15 p.m. until Thursday.