The Lady in the Van is a comedy-drama directed by Nicholas Hytner, to a screenplay written by Alan Bennett, based on his own biographical play. The story was previously presented as a theater production and then earned a BBC radio adaptation. As the film’s opening titles announce, The Lady in the Van is based mostly on a true story; a tale about a homeless ragged elderly woman, who spent fifteen years at a rundown van parked on the writer’s driveway in London. Staring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in the main roles, the production enjoys a wonderful cast, though, truth be told, Maggie Smith does shadow them all.
The Lady in the Van’s story moves at a slow pace -- in a semi-contemplative manner. That is no small wonder, as when it comes to plot, there is not much there to work with. Thus this mostly true tale is more of a self-serving character study than anything else. While interesting as such, not enough changes take place in the characters to justify a full length feature film. Luckily, Smith is always fun to watch and is able to engage the audience far longer than the film deserves. Still, on the up-end, in between the trivial curiosities of the story, a couple of perspectives are offered. The Lady in the Van inspects, not without humor, the quickness with which society judge appearances; the true, even if corny, old phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ comes to mind. While this notion is obvious all along the storyline, the sublime undertone is of the judgement Smith’s character -- the subject of society’s prejudice, carries towards those who disapprove of her. The Lady, so it seemed, at least for the most part, was oblivious to what others made of her, while she herself was a harsh critic of others. Her criticism softened, but did not exclude, her writer host’s homosexuality.
The other element carried through this film is fate; fate as a belief and fate as in that invisible hand that throws the dice. It inspects how a chain of events can lead a person on a path, and how choices made dictate an outcome. If that is destiny, where, like in an old Greek drama, the participant has no choice but play the role, or is it karma, where the way the person responds to events leaves her with options -- we are left to decide. Here too there is not much anew, yet this component adds some substance to the otherwise thin plot.
All in all, The Lady in the Van is entertaining, despite of all its shortcomings. Just watch it equipped with lots of patience and the right set of expectations.