The Lady in the Van was always going to be a crowd pleaser, with Maggie Smith at her cantankerous old lady best as Miss Shepherd, the woman who parked her vehicle, in which she lived, in the street and refused to leave. The well to doers of the street humour her and try to help her, but being the contrarian that she is, Margaret refuses to accept their help, insisting she is helping them should she opt to do anything they suggest.
It’s a recipe for much crowd pleasing humour, and Smith can play these kinds of characters with her eyes closed behind her back.
Less of a known quantity is Alex Jennings playing Shepherd’s “reluctant landlord” Bennett, a playwright and humourist who is kind of torn between using the experiences of his life with Miss Shepherd (and his mother) and keeping his private life private. Obviously, the former won in the end.
The film employs “two aspects” of Bennett: the writer and the person who interacts with his neighbours, and it’s a little odd to begin with and a little annoying at times, but it does allow Bennett to express his inner thoughts when, in the “real world” there was no one else in the house with whom he could really bounce around these ideas.
For all the humour in the situations, there is also a real sense of sadness and regret that hangs over everything, and some nastiness that really leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. So its not quite the non stop laugh fest it may seem from the trailers.
Still, despite the lost opportunities and misunderstandings and the events that led Miss Shepherd to a life on the street (albeit in a van in the driveway), it’s a really entertaining and (with certain caveats) enjoyable film, and not overlong either.
Verdict: The Lady in the Van is a great small, true to life (within reason) comedy drama that doesn’t demand too much from the audience but gives back quite a bit. 7 Hail Marys out of 10.