Monday, November 30, 2015

The Lady In The Van (2015)

Just as Miss Shepherd came for three months and stayed for 15 years her story and her legacy has haunted writer Alan Bennett for almost 30 years. The film version of THE LADY IN THE VAN is Bennett’s fourth or fifth stab at the material. The story originally appeared in The London Review of Books. It was updated with information from Miss Shepherd’s family and published as book a short time later. Bennett then turned it into an award winning play and a radio adaption before turning it into a movie (all starring Maggie Smith). With all these reiterations of the tale it would seem that despite all of his protestations Miss Shepard really is his old lady.

For those unfamiliar with the story, THE LADY IN THE VAN is the true story of Alan Bennet’s interaction with the Miss Shepherd a cranky old homeless woman who lived in a van which is parked on various streets in Camden in London. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her, she would randomly pick steets and houses to live in font of claiming divine inspiration, and in a weird way accepted her despite her driving them up the wall at times. When her van was threatened with being towed off the street Bennett agreed to let miss Shepherd park it in his drive way. It was supposed to be for a couple of months, it lasted fifteen years.

I have been moved by Bennett’s story ever since my aunt sent me a news print copy so many years ago. I’ve reread the account any number of times and been moved greatly each time. My love of the piece is so bad that every time I say or think the word “Possibly” I hear what I think is Miss Shephard’s voice. When Maggie Smith was announced to staring the play I was thrilled since she was who I had in my head as the perfect person to play the cantankerous old lady. When the film’s release was announced for this December I was thrilled. While many people were looking forward to Star Wars I was looking forward to star turns.

If you walk in off the street to see the film you may find some of it rather odd. The film is very much a film and not a straight recounting of the tale rather it’s a meta-exercise in storytelling with two Alan Bennett’s who frequently break the fourth wall to address the audience (One Bennett is the one who lives life and the other is the one who records it). Bennett is clearly telling the story and he makes sure we are aware that portions of the film are made up as the Alan Bennett’s argue about made up sequences. (A bit toward the end had several people at the press screening rolling their eyes since they felt it came from movie and made it less real- of course they had no problem with the multiple Bennetts and breaking of the fourth wall as they were equally realistic)

Maggie Smith gives an acting masterclass. Fully inhabiting the person of Miss Shepherd it’s hard to imagine anyone else being her, even the real Miss Shepherd. One of he keys here is Smith’s use of the her eyes. Watching the film you get the sense of a whole life going on behind them. In the last half hour as when Miss Shepherd goes to the day center your heart breaks not because of anything overt but from the small facial tics that almost might be joy at the prospect of a bath or a piano. And while the weight of her words in the simple line to Bennett that it was okay to take her hand because it was clean, shattered me into a million pieces not for what was said or how but for the desperate need behind the eyes for actual human contact. Additionally one need only watch the shift in how she holds her body when being lifted into the ambulance to see the regalness beneath the filth that Bennett mentions. Watch when it happens- really watch it- and you realize it’s an ever so slight shift in her posture and altering of her eyes and expression  that nails it(It had me murmuring audibly). She doesn't seem to move but somehow she does (I think).

Smith’s performance is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen and it’s a shame that all the Oscar talk is not focusing on this tour de force by an acting pro but the workman like of young women who don’t really know what true acting it. Mark my word if Smith isn’t honored at years end with in five years people will realize the mistake.

While all the attention will go to Smith it has to be pointed out that Alex Smith as two of the Alan Bennetts is scary good. I’ve seen Bennett is numerous interviews and he has it down-so down in fact that when the real Alan Bennett rides into the film had to do a double take as to whom I was seeing.

As a film unto itself, LADY IN THE VAN is really good. I suspect that my opinion of the film is affected by the baggage I carried in. I have quibbles but they are purely the esult of being so aware of the story and other versions of it. I know my feelings for the film are going to strengthen over time as I revisit the film over and over again and the film is no longer compared to what I expected after however many years of Miss Shepherd around with me. Don't forget the film is frequently laugh out loud funny and incredibly touching. I cried several times during it often not long after roaring with laughter..

In thinking about the film between seeing it and writing this piece I’ve come to realize that it is a much richer telling of the story. The addition of more information about Bennett’s own life from his relationship with his deteriorating mother to his sexuality adds a great deal to the complexity of the film. I like that Bennett has crafted a film that spins the story into being more than just a recounting of an intriguing yarn and instead becomes a meditation about kindness, human nature, the relationship of mothers and sons and faith. The layering of additional material makes me feel that the film is less biography but instead an honest and true drama in its own right. I know some of these changes come from the play but at the same time the play’s structure was a theatrical construct, but I think now Bennett has finally managed to weave it all together into a package that will live on for decades to come.  The title at beginning of the film being based on a mostly true story is correct.

I really like the film a great deal. I suspect down the road and two or three more viewings I’m going to love it.

LADY IN THE VAN opens Friday in New York and LA for a week long Oscar qualifying run. It opens wide in January

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