Homelessness pulls up to the curb

Movie review: The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith stars as a woman who makes her home in a rusty van parked outside the house of an uptight playwright named Alan Bennett in this story about finding safe harbor

 

The Lady in the Van

3/5

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Running time: 104 minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

By Katherine Monk

Homelessness is a social ill that brings out the worst in us. We want to turn away from the man in greasy clothes with shopping bags taped to his feet. We want to cross the street before the soot-faced woman with the psychotic stare starts randomly screaming expletives. And we want to go home to our comfortable beds without feeling guilty about all the people we passed that day who sleep on soggy cardboard boxes.

It’s a perfectly normal response to a problem that feels so overwhelming, it paralyses most people into willful inaction. “It’s tragic, but I can’t fix the problems of the world by myself,” we tell ourselves.

And yet, if we all had a choice, we’d prefer to live in a world where everyone has safe shelter and access to a warm meal. We’d all prefer walking home without stepping over bodies cocooned in a dirty blankets.

So where is the disconnect between what we want and what we see?

According to Nicholas Hytner’s new movie The Lady in the Van, the disconnect is probably a function of ego more than anything else because an obsession with appearance is the first villain we encounter.

Alan (Alex Jennings) is an aspiring novelist and playwright living in London in the early 1970s, just as working-class neighbourhoods are beginning to gentrify, and the public taste for status is beginning to swell.

Alan bought his first flat on a hot block, but just when he feels like a man on the verge of a social breakthrough, a rusty old van containing an old woman named Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) turns up on the sidewalk in front of his house.

She’s dirty and the van barely moves but she has a right to park there, putting Alan in the most unpleasant of positions: He wants to look like a charitable, open-minded soul with solid moral values, but he doesn’t want some sketchy homeless person in his life, or even close to his front door.

Making things more complicated, she’s pushy and aggressive and every time Alan feels a hint of benevolence, she crosses a boundary and demands to use his lavatory — often leaving unflushed feces behind.

Alan’s neighbours are mortified. They want the van moved. They want Alan to object, but the weight of the law rests on her side. In other words, much like the derelict van, Alan is stuck. The old woman is there to stay.

It’s an unpleasant and awkward situation, and it forms the central dilemma in Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s autobiographical story. Yet, as unpleasant as it all seems, even from a viewer’s perspective, there is great comfort to be found in this film as it delicately, and compassionately, unveils layer after layer of ego to show us our infinite capacity for love.

Using a narrative device that splits Alan into two characters — literally — we watch Alan negotiate with his own fears and his own ego. The writerly ego is stern, pragmatic and emotionally detached. It’s also incredibly witty because it has distance and can parse emotional responses, making the closeted and compassionate voice feel victimized and guilty.

It’s an engaging one-man play unto itself, but the drama grows richer, and far deeper, once we get the old lady in the van involved in the mental denouement.

Without resorting to mock saintliness or entirely saccharine theatrics, Maggie Smith creates a character we easily recognize. She’s someone who once had a place in the real world. She’s an educated and well-spoken eccentric, but she’s not mentally ill.

Smith flips every dogeared corner of this musty crone archetype without once resorting to caricature. And because of her ability to play it dramatically straight, the twin Alans bring the humour.

Instead of making fun of the oddball old woman, Alan pokes fun at himself and his unspoken, guilty fears. He is forced to penetrate his own denial, and investigate his own subconscious desire to find some narrative order in the chaos.

As a result, we are essentially watching Alan Bennett’s own metamorphosis from book-bound dramatist to soulful playwright. The more he questions his own reaction to the lady in the van, the more he learns about himself, as well as the world at large.

From a place of fear and an obsession with appearances, we watch him find a whole new view of the world through her broken windows. Like us, he was waiting for her to change, to wake up and crave a real bed and a square meal that could be remedied by a self-improvement montage that offered a shower and a clean change of clothes.

Hollywood has seduced us into thinking it’s just a matter of medication and hygiene; that we can erase homelessness through cosmetic means. What’s laudable about this movie is the way it silently addresses this fallacy through believable inter-personal dynamics — without moral grandstanding.

It’s a subtle tour de force that flirts with corny cliché but takes it one step sideways every time thanks to the carefully modulated performances from the two leads. Let’s face it, watching a movie about a homeless woman is about as seductive as seeing a homeless person in real life: Our first impulse is to turn away.

Yet, thanks to Smith and Jennings, The Lady in the Van doesn’t just stall in our psyche. It forces us to get out of our little life compartment and push human compassion to the curb.
@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, February 5, 2016

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Summary

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The Lady in the Van -- Based on playwright Alan Bennett (The History Boys) own experience, The Lady in the Van features Maggie Smith as a homeless woman who parks her rusty van outside a writer's home, and slowly begins to occupy his mind. Though predictable and prone to sap, the two veteran leads bring a stiff upper-lip stoicism to the frame that resists the pitfalls of pity. -- Katherine Monk

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