LOCAL COLOR Smith phones it in as an indigent woman who inserts herself into an
upscale London neighborhood and calls it home.
I've tried to imagine who the makers of this odd little movie thought their American target audience would be. I doubt it was screenwriter Alan Bennett's fan base. The British playwright is celebrated as hell in his native land but is not exactly a household name here. He wrote the memoir that became the play that ultimately became this film.
The fabulous Jim Broadbent is well-known on this side of the pond, and his name is prominently featured in the picture's marketing, as though he were one of its stars. But that can't be the answer, either. He's only in three brief scenes.
And The Lady in the Van wasn't designed to appeal to dilapidated-motor-vehicle enthusiasts. The van of the title, like Broadbent, doesn't get much screen time. Which, I suppose, means the picture's creators calculated that moviegoers stateside would be interested because the film stars Maggie Smith. Its ads and trailers certainly give that impression. Only, it's a false one.
The star of The Lady in the Van is Alex Jennings. I know: "Alex who?" He plays Bennett, who is actually the central character. The playwright really did move into London's Gloucester Crescent in the early '70s. An elderly homeless woman really did park her van in his driveway for 15 years, as the film depicts. The problem is, in all that time, nothing really interesting happened.
Here's an example of something not really interesting happening: Bennett states early on, "Writing is like talking to oneself." Suddenly there are two Alan Bennetts on screen, both played by Jennings. One is a metaphor for the Bennett who lives life. The other is a metaphor for the Bennett who observes and writes it all down. We know this because the Bennetts continually say things like, "I live, you write — that's how it works." Only it doesn't. They're both rather dull fellows.
Every once in a while, this pair's scintillating repartee is interrupted by the visiting vagrant, who has some pressing need such as use of Bennett's loo. Being mild-mannered, Bennett lets the woman into his home and gradually into his life. Being played by Smith, "Miss Shepherd" is imperious, demanding and haughty in the actress' signature style. A running joke has her refusing to thank anyone who offers a kindness. That, by the way, is about as funny as things get.
They get corny instead. The movie's focus isn't the old woman, but the impact her presence has on Bennett. It is possible to detect his incremental loosening up over the course of the film — an exercise more entertaining than watching paint dry, but just barely. The poverty of action forces director Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys) to supplement it by manufacturing a sense of mystery about the unkempt woman's past.
She shocks Bennett by speaking French. Then by announcing she was once a nun. Hints are dropped that she studied classical piano in her youth. These "revelations" are a condescending ploy premised on the prejudice that someone who's fallen on hard times couldn't possibly have lived a life of education or accomplishment. The filmmakers don't know when to quit. I defy anybody not to roll their eyes by the time Bennett muses, "There is a vagabond nobility about her; a derelict Nobel Prize winner she looks."
I can't imagine whom this lightweight curio is intended to appeal to, honestly. With its combination of third-rate Charlie Kaufmanisms, clumsy meta touches and ho-hum narrative, it certainly didn't appeal to me. Fans of Dame Smith would be well-advised to enjoy her work on the final season of "Downton Abbey." There's little chance of enjoying it here.