The Lady In the Van (review)

The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett

After I read Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader (review link here) I do what all readers do, I assume—I ran to get my hands on another of the author’s works. The library had a copy of a two-fer: The Clothes They Stood Up In (another novella) and The Lady In The Van (a non-fiction narrative); both pieces center around how the stuff in our lives can entrap us. The novella is about a couple who returns from a night out to find their flat bare, stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper and curtain rings. Now the Ransomes are a proper English couple, and LadyVanmuch of their life is spent keeping up appearances—but Mrs. Ransome finds that in shedding her possessions (albeit unwillingly), she gains a new sense of freedom and independence.

The book’s companion piece is the non-fiction The Lady in the Van.  Miss Mary Shepherd is a homeless (sort-of) elderly woman forced to move the van-which-was-her-home from spot-to-spot only to park at last on the writer’s street. Concerned for her safety, Bennett invites her to park in his yard—presumably for a short time. But days became weeks became months and we watch the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd develop with a kind of tumultous tenderness that changed them both. This is a story about mental illness and community and one would assume the story’s focus would be the Crazy Lady. And to some extent it is, of course. But it’s also a story (and I would contend it’s the real story here) about how reaching out to others often transforms us more than it does those we “help”.

The Lady in the Van was a 1999 theatrical production in London and is now a film to be released sometime this year  starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, who also starred in the original play. I had no idea this was in the making until my husband shared a film trailer he thought I’d like. “Of course I like it,” I said after watching, “ Considering I read the book several years ago.”

There’s little of Maggie Smith’s work that I haven’t adored and from what I can see in the trailer, she’s made for The Lady in the Van. I think you might agree.

So how does the movie stack up: The Book Thief

Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. IMBD: 7.6/10. Odd discrepancy, maybe. Of course, the focus of Rotten Tomatoes is more movie critics–I read just a couple and, for the most part, they were disappointing: “Death as a tooth fairy“, “not a little dull“, “no real feeling for the catastrophe“. The blurb on the site reads, “A bit too safe in its handling of its Nazi Germany setting …” And it was–too “safe”. As I wrote about in my review (link), the novel had twelve-year-old children shouting “Heil, Hitler” and burning books and marching in Hitler Youth parades. In today’s politically correct climate, I couldn’t see any of that translating to the screen; and, quite frankly, it just might have been too inflamatory for a world that still hasn’t worked through our issues of otherness and hatred and oppression.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if the reviewers had read the book. I suppose that should be beside the point because the film should be able to stand on it’s own–and, according to many reviewers, it didn’t. My husband hadn’t read the book, but when I filled in some blanks for him, the movie worked. It was certainly beautiful–all in shades of brown and gray and taupe with a sky almost always pale, rarely blue. Geoffrey Rush was a perfect Papa and Sophie Nelisse played up the contrast between Liesel’s angelic side with her feisty approach to life’s disappointments. Rosa Huberman was perhaps a bit too soft–the reader waited nearly half the book for Mama to become sympathetic.

I was not disappointed in the movie, but it couldn’t even begin to touch the poignancy of the book. In Markus Zuzak’s Book Thief, Death was most definitely not a tooth fairy, but a character in his own right, one who dawdled and bantered, laughed and cried. And Zuzak didn’t give us Nazi Lite. He showed us life under the Third Reich through the eyes of a German citizen–sometimes burdensome, often constricting, but overall pretty routine after a while. And isn’t that, really, the horror of Nazi Germany? Or any evil empire, for that matter? It becomes unexceptional. And when we accept evil as commonplace, we’ve begun to lose our humanity.

So read the book. Then enjoy the movie.