The Lady in the Van

(2015) *** Pg-13
104 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Nicholas Hytner. Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Alan Bennett, Jim Broadbent.

/content/films/4872/1.jpgIn the script for his “memory play” The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams writes, “Memory takes a lot of poetic licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” Williams wasn’t wrong, but Alan Bennett’s memory play The Lady in the Van—now a feature film starring Maggie Smith—shares its poetic real estate in equal measure between the heart and the head, rescuing the story from pure sentimentality.

That British institution Alan Bennett has authored 22 plays, 20 teleplays, 6 screenplays, and upwards of 20 books, including a couple of memoirs. In 1989, at age 55, he wrote The Lady in the Van for print, followed swiftly by a radio play version. Nine years later, it took the stage; ten years later, the radio; and now, the big screen in a version adapted by the author for director Nicholas Hytner, who previously directed films of Bennett’s The History Boys and The Madness of King George. That is to say, the material has been road-tested.

A fanciful memoir introduced as “A Mostly True Story,” The Lady in the Van is as much about Bennett as the title character, the homeless woman “Mary Shepherd.” Alex Jennings winningly reprises his stage and radio role of Bennett, depicted as a dedicated author and weak-willed person, both given to theatrical flourishes. “The writer is double,” the screen Bennett muses. “There is the one who does the writing. And there is the one who does the living.”

And there is the woman who squats in his Camden Town, London driveway, the short, smelly figure, made square by her overcoat, head scarf and hat (nearly as square as her boxy, yellow van). With Bennett’s hesitant consent (“just till you sort yourself out”), Shepherd holds her ground between 1970 and 1984. As go the years, so go the layers built up over her past, Bennett gradually learning who she was in her youth and the secret that has driven her into a life of paranoid victimhood. And with those years comes unexpected caring (“not a word I like,” Bennett insists) to rival that for his own sickly mother.

Though at times precious, Bennett’s sly script masks that deeply sentimental core with comic edge and a writer’s willful, mercenary remove. The pleasure isn’t in the meandering story but in Bennett’s endlessly inventive prose and the percolating performances, especially the latest astringently loveable turn by international treasure Smith. Bennett deals frankly with the cruel physical and social indignities of age and the ageless struggle of self-definition, as challenged by society. To the world, “Mary” is but a decrepit, homeless, smelly nuisance, and Bennett, nearly as suspect, is a homosexual playwright to be heard and not seen. Still, these two tacitly agree to each other, in an unlikely but extant truce, a nurturing understanding between two artists.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 4/19/2016

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

As usual, Sony doesn't disappoint with its latest Blu-ray release: the hi-def platter for The Lady in the Van comes with top-notch A/V and some quality bonus features. The digital-to-digital transfer ably recreates the theatrical experience with accurate color rendering, black level and contrast. Most inviting amidst the all-around excellent PQ are the details and textures, which enhance the film's pronounced sense of place: the leafy carpeting of a thoroughfare's concrete, the neighborhood brickwork, the frayed edges on the character's clothes and in their psyches, rendered on the actors' expressive faces. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix makes lesser demands on the disc, but just as ably delivers the source material in high fidelity and faithful accuracy, with ample attention to the music and, again, the environmental ambience, as sprinkled into the surround channels. Most importantly, the front-and-center dialogue comes through with precision, prioritized clarity.

An audio commentary with director/producer Nicholas Hytner wins best in set among the extras, as the seasoned director engagingly addresses the adaptation from stage to screen, working (again) with Bennett as well as his actors, the ins and outs of the characters and the implications of their psychologies and behaviors, the story's themes, and a variety of production challenges.

A selection of decidely compact video bonuses nonetheless offers some added value: "Playing the Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd" (6:22, HD) with cast and crew members commenting on Smith and her character; "The Making of The Lady in the Van"(13:46, HD), covering some facts about the true story as it concerned the writer and director, the original stage production, actors, locations, and the story's longevity; "The Visual Effects" (7:29, HD), about twinning Jennings and such; three "Deleted Scenes"—"You Could Get a Tent" (1:09, HD), "I'm Preparing My Manifesto" (1:43, HD), and "She Has a Low, Quiet Voice" (1:54, HD)—and "The Lady in the Van Theatrical Trailer" (1:58, HD).


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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