AFI Fest Movie Review: ‘THE LADY IN THE VAN’ – Sympathy For The Devil


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE LADY IN THE VAN |  104 min   | PG-13
Directed by:
Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Dominic CooperJames Corden

Since PHILOMENA was a modest critical and commercial hit and earned lots of sensational buzz, it’s only natural for filmmakers to want to replicate that magic. Destined to be called “This year’s PHILOMENA,” director Nicolas Hytner’s THE LADY IN THE VAN is that film with underpinnings of ADAPTATION. However, I’ve already managed to oversell this. Although the ingredients are there (An unlikely friendship! An irascible old lady! A middle-aged man in search of a story! Catholic guilt!), the similar lightning-in-a-bottle formula doesn’t quite pan out here – feeling nagging and bothersome instead.

We open on a pitch black screen with audio of a tragic accident which claims the life of a young man on a motorbike and renders cloistered nun Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) a fugitive. Yes, we’re supposed to be rooting for someone involved in a hit-and-run accident. Cut to Camden, a well-to-do artists’ area of London, in 1974 where Miss Shepherd is now homeless, living out of the same van from the accident. She’s become a neighborhood fixture – a blight, moving her junker from the front of one neighbor’s home to the next. Some neighbors take pity on her, but it’s not until closeted playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moves in that she finally anchors her van in his driveway. Bennett’s simple act of kindness morphs into a nightmare, as she exploits his goodwill at almost every turn. Her van doesn’t leave his driveway for 15 years!

The narrative hinges on audience sympathy towards Miss Shepherd – whether or not her actions are relatable, credible and believable. I’ll save you the time: you won’t think they are. She goes beyond complex and resides in unlikable territory for the majority of the run time. She hates the noisy neighborhood children, yells at people for playing loud music, takes without ever uttering a thank you, and – even worse – she’s deranged and potentially dangerous. Actually, it treats the accident as a mystery up until the bitter end, which is an unnecessary screenwriting tactic. This story comes across as more of a cautionary tale than a cute and quirky story about an unlikely friendship. The lesson imparted seems to be, “Never help people or they will mooch off of you and take advantage of your kind nature.” Also, depending on how you feel, Hytner’s two poop jokes are either a blessing or a curse. As the writer points out, “People will complain about the shit.” You bet we will.

Maggie Smith is THE LADY IN THE VAN. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Maggie Smith is THE LADY IN THE VAN. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

There are a few logistical concerns too; if the police (played here by Jim Broadbent) found her and have been harassing her for years, why wasn’t she prosecuted? She’s still driving around the key piece of evidence. If Alan lets Miss Shepherd use his lavatory every now and then, why doesn’t he offer to let her shower, have a warm meal, wash her clothes or what have you? Her self-abnegation seems clear, but there aren’t any scenes of her refusing help. Also, where does that social worker get off passing any kind of judgment on Alan, when he’s been the only good person in Miss Shepherd’s life?! Is it just because of British etiquette that he doesn’t kick this person out of his house immediately? Why is it that he allows Miss Shepherd – a virtual stranger – in, and not his own mother? He poses this question, but it remains unanswered. He’s got mommy issues, for sure, but the filmmakers never get to the heart of this problem. Plus, the ending is surreally bonkers, which can be tonally jarring when it goes for broad comedy.

Smith turns in a lively performance in a role only she could play – well, if Dame Judy Dench hadn’t been cast in PHILOMENA. Though I would like to have seen more differentiation between his “writer self” and “human self” when it came to his split personalities (a la ADAPTATION), Jennings is decent here. There’s a good energy when Hytner embraces the off-balanced nature of these dueling meta life forces.

I just can’t even with this lady in the van – and I’m betting neither can you.

THE LADY IN THE VAN plays AFI Fest on November 6 and 9. It plays in New York in Los Angeles for a qualifying run starting on December 4. It will open in January 15, 2016.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.