For the entire duration of the film I kept thinking “hurry up and die?” and to quote the film itself her character is a “bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-serving, rank, rude, car-mad cow”. Want more? Okay... “which is to say nothing of her flying feces and her ability to extrude from her withered buttocks turds of such force, that they land a yard from the back of the van and their presumed point of exit.”
So clearly from the humour of that quote, she is a character upon which we are supposed to loathe. Her name is Miss Shepherd and she is a mysterious old woman who lives a hermit life inside an old dilapidated van on a suburban street in London. Her reputation precedes her wherever she goes and a local playwright, Alan Bennett, has the misfortune of her squatting on his property (squatting in an unlawful occupancy sense... dear God, not the other!). What began as a neighbourly gesture turned into 15-years of living hell as she filled his yard with rubbish, squalor and human waste.
LADY IN THE VAN is a grotty story, that is surprisingly unconventional and very endearing. And its effectiveness comes down to a strong and long-established foundation amongst the creatives. Writer Alan Bennett wrote the original story based on his own experience, which was adapted for the stage in the late 90s, starring Maggie Smith. She later reprised the role for a BBC adaptation in the 2009. Furthermore Bennett previously worked alongside director Nicholas Hytner on THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE and THE HISTORY BOYS. And so their latest collaboration is the product of a strong working relationship and a complete understanding of the material. Add some bold and unorthodox methods of storytelling and we're left with a unique and thoroughly enjoyable film.
Maggie Smith's character is repulsive and delightful in equal measure and I would argue that this is one of her most sincere performances to date. She commands the screen with authority and every unsavoury moment is delivered with the relish a child might get from pranking their headmistress. My reservations towards her onscreen presence were quickly forgotten and I found myself besotted with her cranky old antics and unwavering hostility towards others. Alex Jennings is also excellent and he matches Smith's performance with a character arc that is refreshingly esoteric. I felt the murmurous of confusion amongst the audience as the script persistently defied conventions and pushed against the fourth wall.
THE LADY IN THE VAN is an odd one and there's no question about that. It is precisely what you might expect, but also entirely different to what you may anticipate. No doubt that won't make any sense to you and so you'll just have to see it for yourself. I highly recommend it.