The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van is based on a true story that sounds like something an overly clever screenwriter would conjure up. Maggie Smith plays Miss Shepherd, a transient – and possibly mentally ill – elderly woman who parks her beat-up old van at various locations in an upscale British neighborhood. Everyone wants her to get lost, but eventually she receives temporary permission to park in the driveway of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), an emotionally repressed writer. She ends up staying there for fifteen years.

At its core, this is a story about “Not In My Backyard” syndrome. Miss Shepherd hordes garbage, so her van stinks. She paints the thing a gaudy color of yellow. She rejects help from social workers. She begs to use people's bathrooms. The residents of the neighborhood feel empathy for her, but they also don't want her on their turf. They keep trying to get her to move on to another neighborhood, to no avail. Bennett, meanwhile, gradually begins to investigate Miss Shepherd, discovering a surprising past that illustrates just how off-course the woman's life has become. If there's a message to The Lady in the Van, it's that we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the poor and transient among us, as oftentimes these are individuals who have gifts and talents, and who perhaps once led very different lives.

Maggie Smith is absolutely superb in the lead role. She never overplays Miss Shepherd's eccentricities, never goes for wacky when she can go for real. At the core of her performance is fear; the character has a reason why she's essentially in hiding, and that fear drives many of her actions. While at times we can laugh at her strange demeanor, Smith ensures that we recognize the dignity inside the woman she's playing. She has a humorous chemistry with Alex Jennings, who makes Bennett (the writer of The Madness of George III and The History Boys) very stuffy and tense. There's an effective contrast between his reservedness and her perpetual quirkiness.

While the story is undeniably touching, The Lady in the Van makes a couple of strange choices that don't pay off. Directed by Nicholas Hytner from Bennett's screenplay, the film could have done more with a gimmick in which Bennett talks to himself. This conceit is staged by having Bennett (the man) converse with Bennett (the writer), the latter encouraging the former to investigate Miss Shepherd, as it might make for creative inspiration. It's an offbeat way to approach the story, yet one that doesn't yield particularly meaningful results. The Lady in the Van also ends with two very odd scenes. The first is a fantasy sequence that feels radically out of place with everything else; the other is a breaking of the fourth wall that undercuts the poignancy of the movie's coda. Neither work that well.

Nonetheless, the performances and thematic elements are more than sufficient to make The Lady in the Van a treat. As the initial comedy transitions to something more substantive, you realize just how easy it is to look the other way when you see someone transient. Each of those people has his or her own story. If nothing else, the movie says, you can listen to it and know you've helped, just by refusing to take the easy way out and averting your eyes.

( out of four)

The Lady in the Van is rated PG-13 for a brief unsettling image. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

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