“Like a particularly lethargic sloth” The Lady in the Van review


Director: Nicholas Hytner

Music: George Fenton

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent

Cinema has a long lasting love of people having their homes invaded by unwanted intruders, and not just because that’s how most directors view anyone who tries to tell them their opinion on filmmaking. It’s because there’s a lot of different directions one can take with the drama and excitement of home invasion. The horror of Wait Until Dark, the brutality of Straw Dogs, the silliness of Home Alone, the potential is quite large. And now throwing in its own interpretation of this theme is The Lady in the Van, based on the somewhat true story of Alan Bennett’s relationship with a transient woman who parked her van on his driveway. So, how does he and the audience respond?

With a dull, mild curiosity.

Despite being from the viewpoint of two Alan Bennetts, described as one being the writer and the other living the life, the main character is Miss Sheppard, the lady in the van. The film insists that we should be interested in her mysterious life, her past as a pianist and a nun, and why she chooses to live in the van, but throughout most of the film I was only thinking “Oh, let’s just go back and hear Alan Bennett be cynical some more.” The words are witty and sharp, but it’s mostly said about things we don’t care about. Miss Sheppard is a flat, mostly dull character, and the audience is unwillingly handcuffed to her.


Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. Copyright BBC Films.

The highlight of the film is its acting, with the cast being a veritable who’s who of Britain’s finest talent, and James Corden. What dimension Miss Sheppard has is provided almost entirely by the volatile yet vulnerable performance by Maggie Smith, and Alex Jennings is as real an Alan Bennett as the actual Alan Bennett. Even in the small roles, everyone from Roger Allam to Gwen Taylor manage to force themselves to shine. The only bad performance is from, of all people, Jim Broadbent, who pops up to antagonise Miss Sheppard but appears less like a real human being and more like a cartoon supervillain. For a second, I thought the character’s name was Baron von Drakkhen.

But great players cannot save a bad game, and the story of the film is flat, predictable and boring. If you don’t immediately care about Miss Sheppard, then the film becomes more tedious and lifeless by the second. I guessed long before the end the mystery behind Miss Sheppard, but even if I hadn’t I would still have been bored due to the lack of any interest. The film believes that the existence of a mystery to be motivation enough to solve it, which just isn’t the case; I don’t know what John McCririck had for breakfast, but I’m not going to stare at his stools to find out.

Not helping matters is a very by the numbers direction by Nicholas Hytner. While not incompetent, there’s very little in the way of style or flair without being casual. The only parts that show any sort of imagination are the fourth wall breaks, but the best only happen towards the end. It’s a shame that the potential of having two Alan Bennetts and seeing the film from the perspective of the writer only starts to be explored as the film is drawing to a close. Otherwise, a robot could’ve directed this film.

Alan Bennett is a highly praised writer, and rightfully so, but The Lady in the Van just isn’t his best. The above-average but by no means stellar script is tied to a plot as lifeless and sluggish as a particularly lethargic sloth. If you’re really hurting to see Bennett at his best, it’d be a lot cheaper and a lot more entertaining to rent The Madness of King George or The History Boys or even one of The Secret Policeman’s Ball’s, plus you can order some pizza from your sofa. Otherwise, The Lady in the Van, unlike the real Miss Sheppard, can very safely be ignored.

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