This film actually came out of left field for me. Quite literally, I worked one day, we didn’t have it. The next day, I come in, and someone’s asking for a ticket to a movie I didn’t even realize we had. Yup, didn’t know a thing about it until a bit later. I had to admit, I was kind of excited for it. Why? Because January’s been sucking the life out of me with everything that’s come out so far and this didn’t look half bad. Plus, British comedy is always a treat for me. Also, starring Maggie Smith? Um, sold! Without further adieu, this is my honest opinion of THE LADY IN THE VAN.
Based on the “mostly” real events in English writer/actor Alan Bennett’s life. Set during the 1970s, Alan (Alex Jennings) moves to a quiet and friendly suburban neighborhood with a bit of a personality: they have a well-known neighbor named Mary Shepard (Maggie Smith) that lives inside her van. A cantankerous old woman with a chip on her shoulder and not completely mentally sane who constantly parks her van in front of the resident’s houses. It isn’t long before Alan and Mary strike up an unconventional friendship and for the next fifteen years, Alan becomes invested in Mary and her life and discovers that her cranky attitude isn’t skin deep and that there is a fairly tragic life that she’s never told anyone about.
HALLELUJAH!!! HALLELUJAH!!! Someone get a choir, I need this to feel more official! At long FREAKIN’ last, January can claim to have ONE good movie. Not even just good, it’s great.
FUN FACT (before I get started): THE LADY IN THE VAN was originally a stage play, also written by Alan Bennett, back in 1999. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Smith played the role of Mary back then too.
Awe man, I’m still giddy over how good this movie was. Smith is as always a treat to watch on screen. She definitely shines when she’s being bitter and difficult, almost to the point where I get just as frustrated with her as everyone else. But then we’re reminded that Mary is the way she is for a reason and there is an incredible amount of tenderness and vulnerability within her. You can’t help but care, even if that caring is something of its own fight to maintain, but in a good way. She’s not an unlikable person. She’s complex and there’s so much that we don’t know about her and we want to learn it.
Of course, Jennings is a great deal of fun as Alan. I won’t say I’m very familiar with his work, I hope to see more of him in the future because he’s given some great material to work with. Having to play off his own personality, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Not even just to see him work off of himself, but his chemistry with Smith is incredibly endearing. Again, you agree with his frustrations with this woman, but he also does a great job of acting on behalf of the audience that knows there’s more to this poor woman. Like Alan, Mary grows on everyone. You may not want to be completely attached to her, she kind of makes that hard to want, but she’s not a bad person.
Beyond the core characters, I loved the appearances of familiar British actors that I didn’t remember the names of. Jim Broadbent (also knows as the old police captain from HOT FUZZ) as the shady police officer that harasses Mary, and Roger Allam (also known as evil TV guy from V FOR VENDETTA) as one of Alan’s many neighbors, that was enjoyable to see them react to Mary.
Of course, the best part of the story is the heart. Yes, it’s got a lot of comedy, but it never loses sight of its characters and how real they feel. It doesn’t shy away from dark stuff, guilt, mental instability, and the mistreatment of the homeless. While it doesn’t get dark, it’s not REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, but the fact that it touches upon the heavier things clearly shows there’s effort put in to this story and that’s more than I can say for a lot of everything that’s come out this month.
I suppose if there’s any nitpick that I have with the story is that there is a scene where Alan is talking to Mary’s social worker and he, rather out of the blue, talks rather viciously about her. It’s pretty uncalled for and needless.
A part of the ending also confuses me, as a good chunk of the movie is Alan talking to a personified version of himself, as a writer’s quirk (I can relate), but then a character tells him to stop talking to himself as a jest, and… the other self just disappears. Just like that. Odd… why did that need to happen? He’s still a writer and all artists have little things to help them do what they do.
But honestly, this is too good a movie to be hung up on the smaller things that don’t diminish the movie’s spirit. An easy argument against me is that I’m putting this movie on a pedestal because of how bad this month has been for movies, but… don’t care, it’s a wonderful shining light in a sea of crap and I recommend it to anyone who likes British humor or Maggie Smith.
My honest rating: 5/5
But what about everyone else? What did you guys think? Did you enjoy it as much as I did, or is this movie full of rubbish? Let me know what your opinion is.