A lot can be lost in translation. Film is a more immediate medium than the stage: when your face is 25 feet tall (because of a cinema screen, not gigantism), the performance doesn’t need to reach Row Z.
In the transition from stage to screen, broad becomes subtle and – in the case of The Lady in the Van – subtle becomes bland.
The film is an ‘almost’ autobiographical tale from esteemed playwright Alan Bennett, adapted from his 1999 play of the same name. It tells the story of Bennett (played here by Alex Jennings) and his relationship with eccentric homeless woman Miss Shepard (Maggie Smith). She parked her van in his drive and didn’t leave for 15 years.
The story is really rather remarkable, as Bennett is the embodiment of timidity, a master at the particularly English brand of begrudged kindness. It’s also incredibly endearing that the playwright’s own life so closely mirrors his artistic endeavours. The story sounds like a Bennett play. It just so happens to be Bennett’s life.
Of course, this means nothing to most of you barely educated uncultured college students who don’t know Bennett or his works (sorry not sorry). If you planned on seeing this because James Corden is in it and he’s kinda funny singing in the car with famous people – don’t. He’s in it for seven and a half seconds.
Although, all that said, even if you’re versed in Bennett’s inventions, there’s not much in the film to like. The film seems doomed right from the outset for one very simple reason: it’s a film, not a play. Sitting in the cinema, it’s not hard to imagine The Lady in the Van working perfectly on stage, realizing this is exactly why it doesn’t work on film.
All the broad humour is played quieter, more realistic, losing its necessary delivery. It falls flat, right on its face, and still doesn’t manage to be even bad-funny. It’s just painful.
The moment that sums it all up is when Bennett steps in Miss Shepard’s shit, left beside her van in his driveway. I very much doubt that moment is in play. It’s both disgusting and saddening, failing so drastically in it’s attempts to be played for laughs. On stage Miss Shepard is a ‘character’, someone you can laugh at without feeling guilty, the equivalent to Mr. Heckles from Friends (the guy who complains about the noise in Monica’s apartment). On film, however, she is a depressing representation that homelessness can often be made unbearable by complete mental instability.
The film is so emotionally and tonally eschewed, it’s hard to engage with. Although Maggie Smith gives a good performance, it’s lost in a detestable character (I probably would’ve called the police on her, or at least have been tempted to).
The only redemptive factor is Jennings as Bennett and his Legend-like duo performance as Bennett the writer and Bennett the human.
I’d watch an entire film about that. I just wouldn’t watch this.
If you’re Alan Bennett and would like to have a word with Rían about his scathing review, you can find him on Twitter.