It’s difficult to imagine Dame Maggie Smith without her grandmotherly charm, almost constantly exuding classiness and intelligence, reminding us that she’s been around the block more than once. The Lady in the Van too reminds us of her twilight years; it’s both vibrant and deadpan. It also subverts the trademarks of this seasoned actor. So bizarre is this character Mary Shepherd (Smith), who expects so much from the world and, at the same time, so little of herself. Her relationship with playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is too strange, but it presents us with the only aspect of the real world she seems to acknowledge.
Mary spends most of the film scurrying from place to place, taking what she can get and living off the piety of a middle class London suburb, a friendly little neighborhood she has chosen as a final resting place. Smith is great here as a selfish and alienating woman; her oddball rants and paranoid self-delusions are counteracted by a strong dry wit, not only making her character more tolerable but even somewhat endearing. Opposite to her eccentricity is Alan, whose insightful and kind disposition towards Mary is often met with disregard and sometimes repulsion. And while that type of discord may seem implausible among two friends, it’s the self awareness the actors bring to their distinct personality types that sell this odd couple mentality.
What essentially fuels this film is an intelligent script, one that reminds us of the depressing inevitability of old age while still bolstering a genuinely comedic tone throughout its run-time. This is slightly hampered by a jarring tonal shift during the film’s third act, where the comedy is briefly supplanted by a grittier dramatic revelation. I would be wrong to say this was totally unnecessary if the film’s subject matter wasn’t dark to begin with. However, one has to wonder if such shifts work as a detriment against the film’s established flow.
There is no doubt that the film boasts a good script, but while the characters chirp witticisms at one another, it seems a little too easy to get past how emotionally stagnant the story is. The conflicts that come with Mary and her vagabond lifestyle may be funny, but the script’s cutesy and dismissive conclusions seem to ignore the underlying seriousness of her predicament. My complaints here may seem contradictory to my previous argument against the film’s overly serious third act, but there’s a big difference between tone and realism. To truly work, comedy needs an awareness of the real world, a need that seems only partially met with The Lady in the Van.
It’s interesting how this film plays with the concept of fact and fiction—a truly fitting dichotomy as Alan, the playwright, narrates this film. The Lady in the Van has two points of view, both being Alan; one experiences his encounters with Mary as the other writes them down as he relives them. The two coexist in a single narrative and interact with one another as if they were twins, which I initially thought they were. This concept actually ends up working to the film’s advantage, Alan often time relives his encounters with Mary through fiction as a way to emphasize the true depth of their relationship, a piece of artistic license that only works to benefit the story.
In the tradition of upbeat British comedies, The Lady in the Van can and probably should go down as something of a noteworthy addition to a genre that has experienced a bimonthly deficit of actual comedy. Perhaps more defined than the film’s humor are its qualities as a docudrama. While its flaws are still there, The Lady in the Van ultimately features melancholic and tragic depiction of guilt and stifled artistic expression beneath a thin veneer of Smith’s iconic wisecracks and crude gags. If somewhat unpolished and at times dramatically unreceptive, The Lady in the Van gives us a style that works. How and why it works is reliant on the affectionate relationship between the actors and the script.