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The Lady in the Van - Film Review

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by Bryony Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from
Published November 15th 2015
What Would You do if an Old Lady Lived on Your Driveway?
the lady in the van, alan bennett, maggie smith

How do you turn mundane everyday life into a gripping narrative? For that you need an outstanding writer. An action film might getaway with a below par script if there is enough fast paced editing, speeding cars, and loud explosions to carry an audience through to the end, but when the story is based around an on an old woman in a stationary rusty van, greater care is needed. Observation is key, and no one has powers of observation quite like Alan Bennett. Best known for his Talking Heads monologues and The History Boys, Bennett can make the most average of things throughly absorbing. He brings every sight, sound, taste, texture, and smell to life (you might not thank him for the last one) through simple, but acutely visceral descriptions.

The Lady in the Van is based on a 'mostly true story' about a period of Bennett's own life. During the 1970s, a tramp, who lived in the back of her van, parked in front of Bennett's house. Due to new parking restrictions, she soon found herself with nowhere to go, and so Bennett offered to let her use his driveway for a few months until she sorted things out. She stayed there for fifteen years.

Originally a hit West End stage play from 1999, The Lady in the Van later became a BBC Radio 4 drama in 2009. Now, like so many things these days, it has been adapted for the big screen. The film is a 'quiet' comedy; all the laughs come from the pure irony of the situation, witty dialogue, and the return of Dame Maggie Smith in the leading role (she portrayed Miss Shepherd for both the play and radio as well). In real life one would have to summon great restraint not to strangle Miss Shepherd, yet Maggie Smith makes her inexplicably loveable. Miss Shepherd is grumpy, rude, and unashamedly self-centred, but you can't help but feel sorry for her and the way her life has turned out. She looks so miserable most of the time that the few occasions when she does express real joy is a wholly enriching experience.

The only flaw in the film is due to director, Nicholas Hynter falling foul of a cinematic cliche: the flashback. Starting in the middle of the story and then going back to the beginning adds nothing and only gives cause for confusion.There was no reason why he could not have stuck with an entirely linear narrative. You don''t need fancy tricks, just great writing.
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Why? Fun for film lovers
When: From 13th November 2015
Where: Cinemas
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