There’s a sense of déjà vu to “The Lady in the Van” which should come as no surprise – we have been here before, not at 23 Gloucester Crescent in London’s Camden Town where the story is set (and was actually filmed at) but with the often whimsical literacy of a Nicholas Hytner–Alan Bennett collaboration (“The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys” serving as previous examples of their stage-to-screen endeavors). And of course there’s the chance to once again see Dame Maggie Smith delightfully deliver tart-tongued lines with deadly accuracy.
Those elements make for a somewhat entertaining treat, though surprisingly a largely lifeless one given the basis for the tale – a real-life interaction between a woman whose increasingly decrepit live-in van was parked in Bennett’s drive at the aforementioned address for 15 years. True, this is a very English story with some very reserved English social mores, but even when we know more about the characters the whole thing seems to barely scratch the surface.
When Miss Shepherd (the name Bennett knew her by) died in 1989 the writer penned a memoir about her in the London Review of Books that led her brother to contact Bennett and fill in critical details about the lady he’d known yet hardly known at all. A well-received 1999 play at the National Theatre starring Smith followed, and now the story has hit the screen.
Hytner (the National’s chief from 2003 to 2015) has, among other directorial attributes, a fine gift for pacing, and it does not desert him during this film’s 103 minutes which are beautifully lensed by Alan Dunn. Bennett, well, one of the English speaking world’s best wordsmiths doesn’t really disappoint either, though it sometimes feels his theatrical conceit of having him represented twice – as Bennett the man and Bennett the writer – is too precious; the film is really more about him than the title character, but that truth is one the two Bennetts own up to during the course of the movie.
Keeping that conceit – and some fanciful goings-on late in the movie – from becoming treacle are very sharp performances from Smith and Alex Jennings as Bennett. While Jennings may not be very well known here like the dowager duchess of “Downtown Abbey” the three-time Olivier Award winner is held in deservedly high regard by London theatergoers and does a take on the introverted man from Leeds that’s apparently spot-on (I wouldn’t know personally, of course, just trusting the opinions of some of those who know Bennett and have publicly praised Jennings’ performance).
There’s lovely support from a bevy of fine Brits including Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent, Deborah Findlay, Claire Foy and David Calder. The ever-glorious Frances de la Tour and other “History Boys” alums turn up as well (like current TV host James Corden as a fruit seller).
But “The Lady in the Van,” for all the great folks in front of and behind the camera, stops short of connecting with us as it might have done (there’s certainly some deep emotional chasms that are touched on but not explored). If you love Dame Maggie and/or you’re an unrepentant anglophile as I am, you’ll find things to enjoy, but this movie skips where it truly could have soared.
“The Lady in the Van” opens in the Nashville area today at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.) and the Carmike Thoroughbred 20 (633 Frazier Dr. in Franklin); the film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration “for a brief unsettling image” and runs 108 minutes. For showtimes and tickets visit Fandango or MovieTickets.com.