3 out of 5 stars
Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a playwright who likes his solitude. He decides to buy a house in Camper Down, London, on a nondescript street that is known for its eccentric and artistic residents. Alan seems to have found the best place to write his plays in peace. Then he comes in contact with the most unique and divisive resident of the neighbourhood, Mary Shepard (Maggie Smith). A long-term resident who does not live in a house, but in her Bedford van that is parked on the seemingly idyllic street. She chooses to move up and down the street to find different places to park her van. Not long after Alan moves in, Mary chooses to park in front of his house. As time passes, he moves pass the smell and reluctantly begins to care for her and eventually offers for this vagabond visitor to move her mobile home into his driveway. What was meant to be a three month arrangement becomes a 15 year symbiotic relationship between the two offbeat neighbours. Through this tale of self-expression, historical discovery, mental-illness and yellow paint, Alan Bennett documents his caustic, but humorous experiences and relationship with Mary Shepard.
The Lady in the Van is a fascinating depiction of homelessness, the treatment of the elderly and how absolution from sins works that avoids the trappings of sentimentality. Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings prove to be masters of their thespian craft by providing the simmering depth needed for these multi-dimensional individuals who in their attempt to separate from humanity, eventually come to realise their need for community and one another.
The challenge for director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible) is taking two seemingly self-absorbed and unappealing central characters and developing them into something that draws the audience into their story. He achieves this challenge by slowly peeling back the layers of the lives of Bennett and Shepard, which helps to explain their quirky behaviour and isolation from their past and families.
Like Bennett’s stage plays, the subtlety of the dialogue is meant to capture your attention more than any special effects. Some of the story elements are disturbing, but Bennett and Hytner seem to be merely telling the story instead of making a grand statement about homelessness and mental illness. These are merely nuances of true life individuals who find themselves in a unique life situation. Overall The Lady in a Van is well-written and directed, but its primary failing is found in the weak ending. Hytner seems to get to the end of shooting the footage and runs out of ideas, but this is a minor infraction in a good film.
At a dinner discussion in the film, Allan and his neighbours are making comments about the existence of Mary Shepard on their quaint street. Most of the comments were disparaging, until one neighbour brings up Mary’s place in humanity. This opens the discussion of the value of all of mankind, regardless of financial position. Homelessness and the poor have been part of society throughout history. The Bible shares a fair bit about how we should treat the less fortunate in society, valuing their humanity and caring for our fellow residents of this world. At the core of the Christian message is that humanity's value is not found in the resident's of earth's physical residence, but in their relationship with God.
REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
1. What does the Bible say about homelessness? (Proverbs 19:17, Luke 3:10-11)
2. How are we supposed to respond to those with mental illnesses? (Psalm 34:17-20, Philippians 4:6-7)
3. Where can we find true forgiveness? (Mark 11:25, Ephesians 4:32)