The Lady in the Van

First posted to Facebook 7.3.2016

Is it just me?  Is it my age?  I’m trying to work out why I’m so adamantly Anglophile when it comes to This Kind of Thing, which The Brits Do So Well.

They do it so well because the Brits have always understood the importance of good characterisation, which means having actors who aren’t afraid to make themselves look ugly or awkward, or to portray human behaviour in its least appealing manifestations.   In American movies you’re either beautiful or you’re cartoonishly ugly and foul-mouthed.  It’s an essentially immature approach to characterisation. 

Maggie Smith’s cantankerous old bag lady isn’t appealing at all, but by God she’s convincing.   Was Smith in this most recent Oscars count?  If so, she should have won.  Her performance is several dimensions deeper than Brie Larson’s in ‘Room’.  Not that there was anything wrong with Larson’s performance, but it was nowhere near as demanding and difficult as Maggie Smith’s Lady in the Van. 

We know from Downton Abbey that Maggie Smith can play likeable, canny old biddies effortlessly, but the persona she’s required to create here is rude, ungrateful, superstitious, religious, conscience-stricken, selfish, manipulative and none too careful about personal hygiene.  She’s based on a true character – an old woman who lived for fifteen years in her dilapidated van parked in the driveway of Alan Bennett’s London home. 

Bennett was the then up-and-coming English playwright who’d just moved into leafy, trendy Camden and who let the old lady live there mainly out of curiosity about her life, and the consequent inkling that there might be a successful play in it.  Which there turned out to be, of course. 

I’ve always loved Alan Bennett’s writing.  He’s one of the few writers who can pull off successful monologues with no action, as he did with that wonderful ‘Talking Heads’ series years ago.  The Lady in the Van is much busier than a monologue, of course, but it’s created using the same razor-sharp gaze on, and unerring ear for, human behaviour, foibles and speech.  So honest and intelligent a reporter is he on human nature that it almost doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not, and indeed there are various devices in this film by which he lets us know that some elements of the story are made up.

He may make things up for creative effect, but not to sugar-coat reality.  His depiction of the affluent but slightly Bohemian neighbours who react to this old lady derro with a mixture of middle-class disgust and fashionable lefty guilt is spot-on.  And he doesn’t spare himself:   Alex Jennings (he should have got an Oscar too) plays the younger Bennett as a physically awkward, fussy, somewhat dorky, somewhat repressed homosexual.  And I say ‘homosexual’ because I bet that’s how Bennett saw himself back in those days, long before he came out – there’s nothing ‘gay’ about him.   And then there’s that Leeds accent…. 

Gotta stop now.  I’m beginning to take too long to post these reviews.  Something briefer and more pithy next time, I hope.