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“The Lady in the Van” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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     Director Nicholas Hytner and playwright Alan Bennett (“The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) renew their cinematic partnership after a decade-long absence, and the results are dynamite as they have crafted a wondrously quirky and offbeat autobiographical tale based upon the latter’s memoirs. Two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith gives an acting tour-de-force as the title character, an irascible yet pious vagrant who actually wound up living in Bennett’s driveway for 15 years (because the Blessed Virgin advised her to from her soapbox outside of the post office!).

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     Luckily Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings of “The Queen”) isn’t your ordinary, successful playwright. While part of him can be found settled squarely behind the typewriter documenting the story that is unfolding onscreen before our very eyes, his slightly more outgoing and argumentative “half” actually musters up the gumption to leave the house every once in a while (a remarkably effective dual role that is immediately reminiscent of the Kaufman brothers in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”). It is during one of these excursions into the outside world that Bennett happens upon Mary Shepherd (Oscar-winner Maggie Smith), who promptly mistakes him for the disciple whom Jesus loved outside of the town’s Catholic cathedral (the religious connections will make a lot more sense when we get into her backstory). She also asks him for help in pushing her dilapidated van that’s broken down across the street. Bennett reluctantly obliges and pushes her right into his North London subdivision.

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     To say that Mary causes an uproar in the lives of this neighborhood’s residents would be an understatement, especially to that of Alan – who’s fiery yet protective relationship with her would involve relocating the van to his unused carport and ultimately putting up with her antics for the next 15 years. It is throughout this period where we obtain a glimpse into Mary’s life and what occurred prior to her arrival in Camden. We learn all about Mary’s younger years in a convent (she was Margaret then) before being kicked out for having musical aspirations. The fact that she actually displayed her piano virtuosity in music halls and symphony orchestras, creates disconnect to the painstakingly religious woman that she became in the latter part of her life (existing as essentially a nun without her habit). As Bennett delves deeper into her psyche, the comedy paves way to drama as mental illness becomes a very real aspect of Mary Shepherd’s life and she is allocated to drawing out her remaining years in fear from a catastrophic event that she truly doesn’t understand. In fact the two stories behind Mary and Alan are quite similar if you get right down to it – they both are harboring life-altering secrets in their respective closets, and are reticent to accept the world’s judgment.

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     I really enjoyed this film and appreciated its use of flashbacks, as well as Bennett’s remarkable effort to blur the lines between fantasy and reality – so much in fact that some of the scenes I cannot tell you if they were real or fiction (the opening letters onscreen advise us that this story is mostly true). One thing I can tell you is that the final scene involving Mary has probably never been done before on film and is sure to impress even those viewers who aren’t exactly card-carrying members of the ardently faithful! There’s also a couple of interesting cameos, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the cast of Hytner and Bennett’s previous collaboration.

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     Co-starring Jim Broadbent, “The Lady in the Van” will undoubtedly make you laugh, but it also bears a good chance to make you shed a tear (or two). Dame Maggie Smith proves that, at the age of 81, she shows absolutely no sign of slowing down, and actually it’s quite the contrary. She gives one of the most memorable portrayals that I’ve had the pleasure to see this year, and it’s actually her third time in the shoes of this character (once on radio and also onstage). And even though it’s impossible for him to step outside of the great actress’s shadow, Alex Jennings exceedingly entertains with his delightfully downtrodden, dual characterization which elevates the film even higher.

***1/2 (three and a half out of four stars)

“Lady in the Van” will be screening daily, beginning on Friday, February 19 at AMC Elmwood Palace 20 and The Theatres at Canal Place.

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