The Lady In The Van Review - Alan Bennett Is So Meta It Hurts

[LFF 2015] Funny and irritating stage adaptation.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜… The Lady In The Van was first performed on the West End in 1999. It's now made it to the screen in 2015. And I don't think there's a modicum of coincidence that the period of time after it first debuted is identical to the length of its in-movie story of a homeless woman lives in a series of yellow vans in the driveway of a young Alan Bennett. You see, this is a Meta film. Not meta, like Scream with its self-aware characters, but Meta with a capital "M". You're reminded constantly throughout that you're watching a film (or at least a skewed reality) and that what's been shown is a vague approximation of real events. Of course there'd be some needlessly complex time tricks. The lynchpin of all this self-awareness is Bennett (the movie's main character), who divides himself into two different people - the real person (who takes on the burden of interacting with the outside world) and the writer (who translates the real person's observations to the page). Both are played by Alex Jennings, who captures Bennett's vocal and physical tics without descending into Family Guy caricature, and the subtle differences in both mannerisms and clothing make seeing them together on screen a delight (watch out Tom Hardy). Writer Alan provides much of the meta-thinking, as you'd expect given that he is (of course) the narrator of the whole thing. He shouts "you didn't say that" or "this bit didn't happen" intermittently from his room while Real Alan tries to make conversation and grasp his tricky situation out on the street. It starts out fun, but as the film goes on it all begins to wear.
The big problem is there's no real purpose to this being Meta in the first place. Perhaps the time gap match-up is meant to accentuate this, emphasising its unstoppable passage. Maybe it's looking at the mentality of a writer (or in particular Bennett). There's even an argument the whole thing is a metaphor for self-doubt. Or could it be something else? It's all of these readings and none of them, resulting in nothing more than frustration - when a trick is used to this prevalence, the effect is one of confusion rather than thrilling at the smarts of it all. It's still a play popping with Alan Bennett dialogue (he can sure write himself well) and there's a wonderful look at Middle Class guilt exploding from the gentrification of London at the mid-point. And nothing bad can be said about Maggie Smith, who has been playing the eponymous van-dweller for sixteen years now and is fully immersed. But I could never get totally involved thanks to the wink-wink nudge-nudge elements. There's two particular moments at the end where the meta-narrative goes way too far, with the story twisted and the very nature of the film itself pretty much shattered. Coming at the very end, it's really only a reaffirmation that, while I like a lot of the ideas swirling around The Lady In The Van, it's far too self-indulgent to care. So, classic Bennett criticisms then. Seen as part of the London Film Festival 2015.
The Lady In The Van is in UK cinemas from 13th November and US cinemas from 15th January 2015.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.