Length: 104 Minutes
Starring: Maggie Smith
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Written By Nelson Cumming
Maggie Smith plays an old homeless lady (that smells) who lives her life in a banged up van in an affluent snobbish neighborhood in The Lady in the Van. She does play a convincing role is a not-completely-convincing movie. The main criticism of this film is it’s slow and tedious plot development at the beginning and the uncertainty on which character is the lead. However, the film eventually gains some traction and ends well. Allen Bennett as the co-lead playing as a playwright and an author. Both Smith and Bennett have some chemistry as Bennett plays the foil to Smith’s character’s antics. However the payoff in the last 20 minutes is predictable but well done, but do not expect to be blown away at this film at all. It is a good film in of itself. I’ll give it credit for that.
Maggie Smith plays an old homeless lady living in her van in an upper-class snobbish neighborhood that mostly frowns upon her homelessness. Not that she succumbs to these insults; she fights back with words and funny dialogue. However throughout the film, she struggles with her moral conscience and is annoyed whenever she classical music (It’s like a trigger reaction). It is inferred in the beginning why she exhibits those emotions and stressful feelings, but it become more explicit at the end. Her only friend in the neighborhood is Allen Bennett, a lonely man who observes her behavior across the street and writes his observations about her in a journal and forms it into his story.
The narrative pacing in the first third of the film is very slow and almost stagnant. I was always asking myself “What is going on? Where is this film going?” I do not know if slow narrative pacing is the style of British filmmaking or if it is just the movie. If it is the former and British audiences like it, then it is a sad day for me to adapt to the sluggish pace. Nevertheless, once when Maggie Smith starts changing the look of the van, things start to pick up a bit.
This film does have its mildly funny moments, but they are few and far between. When one of the snobby neighbors sees Smith’s car parked right next to their driveway, he asks rudely why is parked her van there. She responds along the lines of “I was reading the Christian car manual about how to park a van straight along the curb, and I believe that this spot makes good Christian parking.” If there were more lines like that in the script, it would have been a really good movie. There are a couple of remarks like that but are spread too few and far between to be consistently funny. Nevertheless, her delivery was spot on for her character.
Another criticism is the predictability of the ending. The main plot revolves around several questions that were in my head surrounding the Maggie smith character such as what she has done that is so horrific that she always prays for redemption? And why does she despise listening to music? From what the film infers in the beginning, I could sort of tell how they were going to end it and it was exactly like I predicted. I dislike predictability in lots of movies. Despite saying that, the ending was actually good enough to warrant it as decent.
The final and the most important critique I have are the constant narrations from the Alan Bennett character. This is because it is so constant and his observations from his house are so frequent I began wondering what The Lady in the Van was centering the character along. Was it Maggie Smiths character and the way she lived her life? Or was it Alan Bennett’s character that was observing Maggie Smith’s life through the window? There was little synergy between the two that the plot was almost darting up and down between Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith with the two occasionally meeting up together. That part just didn’t make much sense for me.
The one character that most people want to see in this movie is Maggie Smith. When she is on, she is on. There are a variety of emotions that she has to portray in her role, which is done in her usual charming way. There are moments where she is meant to feel helpless, strong, joyous, frail, afraid and annoyed and she plays around with it effortlessly. Without Question, she is the star of the show.
Despite the fact the plot was slow and predictable and the confusion of who plays the leading role. The lady in the Van sort of mitigates these errors and is given a little life by Maggie Smith’s performance***