The Lady in the Van
Nicolas Hytner (2015, UK) Maggie
Smith, Alex Jennings
Man about the house
A film in the British tradition of a literary conceit with writer Alan Bennett playing out a double act with himself as both a writer and as house owner in fashionable Camden who in his front drive, hosts the eponymous Lady in the Van.
Hytner’s movie, although ‘decent’ and amusing, never feels like it squares off with its theatric provenance. It’s a play transposed onto screen that never exploits the properties and possibilities of the film medium to move the material beyond the confines of a desultory comedy of manners.
The dramatic structure is potentially complex from the point of view of opposing forces set in motion. A potential that is not actualised as Hitter’s structure never develops its structural promise and eventually delivers little beyond the polish of its dialogue, the bravura performance of Maggie Smith, and the inputs of various stock supporting players.
The key structural device set up in the movie is the schizo split in perspective between Alan Bennett writer in residence, and his Muse, Alan the householder. Depicted as separate entities, it is suggested at the start of the film that they have different perspectives priorities and intentions in relation to experiencing Miss Shepherd. But as the film progresses, in their banter and in their exchanges, there is no development of inner tensions in the relationship. There is no dialogue between them, no opening of internalities, no probing of outer and inner form of motivation and purpose. They are just a couple of old familiars, skirting round and about the same familiar territory. Theatre rather than honesty.
Man about the house Alan initially tells scribbler Alan that Miss Shepherd will not be the subject of any writing. By the end of the film there is no evidence in the script that this line was written for any reason other than dramatic effect. The ‘Alan’ relationship exists to fill out the scenario with knowing nods and winks. This is fair enough except that if you are not going to actually exploit an inherent schizo dynamic in the material, then there is little point to using the relationship as one of the pillars of the film’s structure. Why bother? Except that it grounds the movie in its theatrical provenance of whimsical well written banter.
The second relationship around which the film revolves is the relationship of the Alan Bennett to the two elderly women in his life: his mother and Miss Shepherd, both of whom he has to spend increasing amounts of his time caring for. At this point the lack of any internalised dialogue between Alan one and Alan two reduces the film’s substance. Lady in the Van declines into sequences of short intercut cameos, as the two women move towards death. Hytner and Bennett’s film becomes episodic and and cut loose from any temporal anchorage. Lacking a core dialogue built on honesty, the scenario is uncertain how to deal with the situations that it had called into filmic life, other than by flitting from scene to scene. As the script develops it seems anxious to accelerate away from the material to get to the end of film and the last shots.
The last section of the film takes place in the graveyard and reveals the bankruptcy of the ideas implicit in the film and the degeneration of the material into sentimentality. Although implicitly sentimental by dint of its subject matter, the script is not complicit in sentimentalising Miss Shepherd. Until the last section that is where he film’s conclusion reveals the bankruptcy of the conceptual framework organising the material.
A film organised about a truth content would in one way or another stay with that content. But Lady in the Van is mainly a disguised homage to Alan Bennett and his writing in relation to Miss Shepherd. Lady in the Van tries to pass itself off as being about Miss Shepherd, but it is actually about the man about the house. This would be fine if the film finally revealed its own truth content. But it seems reluctant to do so and if Lady in the van admitted it was actually about Man about the house, the final scenes would have referenced and reflected this.
Without referencing back to the writing up of the material, Lady in the van has nowhere to go, except to keep on running with Miss Shepherd. And in so doing Hytner and Bennett betray their material by staying with her image, and indulging sugary sentimentality and sn SFX finale, as we see van lady reunited with the unfortunate young motorcyclist and like the virgin Mary, she is assumed up into the heaven. A piece of knowing Hollywood kitsch, a wink and a nod to Capra, but at the cost of the film finally losing all of its moralbearings.
Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org