The Lady in the Van

As a writer-critic, I embark on this examination of the new release from Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys) with a heightened open-minded approach.

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click to enlarge Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in 'The Lady in the Van'
Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in 'The Lady in the Van'

As a writer-critic, I embark on this examination of the new release from Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys) with a heightened open-minded approach. Produced from a script by Alan Bennett, it’s based on his own memoir detailing his experiences with a transient woman who called herself Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who parked her van in his driveway and lived out of it over the course of 15 years. Bennett, played in the film by Alex Jennings, is a novel and marvelous creation. He is a writer through and through, a man living so completely inside his own head, so distinctly of two minds that he literally appears throughout the film as two people. He is, at once, a timid man navigating tricky everyday encounters with those around him. This version of Bennett suffers under the emotional weight of an unbalanced relationship with his aging mother (Gwen Taylor), a series of anonymous closeted one-night stands and a desire to keep his neighbors (and the larger world) at bay, despite the fact that his writing exclusively mines his interpersonal exchanges. The other Bennett is the writer sitting at his desk, watching and recording what takes place, offering dry commentary, always from a careful remove, but not necessarily with truly meaningful (impactful) insight — never pointed enough to generate action or inspire revolutionary or life-altering change. Smith has garnered much of the attention surrounding the film, but the real heart and soul of The Lady in the Van is the divided Bennett, on a quest to become whole. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre)  (PG-13) Grade: B+ 

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