Stuck in Second Gear
Every year my girlfriend’s family hold a gathering because, well, it’s just a nice thing to do. I was warned that it would be awful and boring and I’d run screaming because of all the people but in reality it’s a bit of chatting, a couple of board/card games, the occasional walk in the countryside and a few pints here or there.
The first year I attended the grandma came over to me and said “I have been very impressed by you.” I know, I was just as shocked as you that someone could be impressed by me rather hold a mild disdain for my presence. She continued, “You have just sat there and quietly observed everything going on around you and I can see that you are trying to get a feel for who everyone is.”
That’s actually very astute because I consider myself to be an observer. At least, I am until I have a basic handle on the company I’m keeping; after which I will turn up at the wild-west themed party dress in a cow onesie complete with fake udders or a “dress to impress” Oscar themed party dressed as Miximus Decimus Meridius from Gladiator shouting “are you not entertained?” much to the ire of one of managing directors at my previous workplace!
Allan Bennet (Alex Jennings) may not have the extroverted/moronic streak that I sometimes have but he is definitely an observer. In fact, it’s the portrayal of Allan that I found most fascinating in The Lady in the Van. It could be argued that this is because I saw something of myself in Allan but I think there is more to it than that.
If we look at Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) it becomes clear that the film isn’t really about her. The whole story is told from the point of view of Allan and because of that we learn precious little about Mary’s life. Early on we learn that she has hit, and presumably killed, a motorcyclist which has left her afraid that she will be caught and put in prison. We also learn early on that Miss Shepherd was both a keen, elegant and prized piano player. What has turned her into the crotchety, bitter and thankless old lady remains a rather large void within the film.
Ironically, given that Smith’s character is the one you came to watch, almost all scenes with her are related to her apparent senility and barely develop the character or the viewer’s empathy for her. Because of this she becomes rather one dimensional leaving your fascination to lie with Allan instead.
That said there is one underlying theme to Miss Shepherd that needs to be mentioned and that is the devastating effect of institutional bullying courtesy of the church. This manifests itself by the head nun within a convent routinely berating Miss Shepherd for going against God’s will by playing the piano so your core being is filled with music this causes inner conflict and emotional trauma, which is one potential reason for why she is like she is.
What was most fascinating about Allan’s character is that there are 2 of him. One who goes about his daily life being somewhat socially awkward and not very adventurous and then there is the other Allan who is purely the writer. Thanks to some decent script work you are placed directly into the mind of a scribe as he talks to himself to try to organise and improve his thought process before setting pen to paper.
Whilst this is the most fascinating part of the film don’t expect much more than what you have seen in the trailers. Most of the humorous moments can be seen in the trailer and whilst Maggie Smith’s portrayal of Miss Shepherd is undoubtedly impressive there are no real defining moments to the film as the engine is running it’s just not being revved.
- Maggie Smith
- Insight into the mind of a writer
- Well scripted
- Miss Shepherd is one dimensional
- It’s all in the trailer
- No dramatic high points