As a kid, I loved Clash of the Titans. No, not that monstrous 2010 remake with the worst example of post production digital 3D ever put to the sheet but the 1981 film directed by Desmond Davis. Clash of the Titans was notable for a number of things: it was the last feature film worked on by stop motion maestro Ray Harryhausen; and it starred such screen illuminati (appropriately as Greek gods) as Laurence Olivier (Zeus, of course), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite, naturally) and Burgess Meredith (not a god but as Rocky’s – I mean Perseus’ – mentor). So what has Clash of the Titans to do with The Lady in the Van?
Well it was also the first time I had ever laid eyes on Maggie Smith, who played the sea goddess, Thetis. And to my 12-year-old eyes, Maggie looked positively ancient. Of course, she was a spritely 47-year-old then (I say ‘spritely’ because that’s how old I am now) but she has grown older as I have grown older and, as a result, she has always looked ‘old’ to me.
At 81, it’s fair to say she has earned that mantle now but one thing that has not faded with her age is her performance acumen. Indeed, it’s better than ever and she’s an actress who has embraced her age beautifully if not being classically beautiful herself – and there is a great beauty in that in an industry that demands otherwise.
Having seen The Lady in the Van it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Maggie Smith playing the part of the titular ‘Miss Shepherd’. As wonderful as Smith’s thespian peers are, neither Judy Dench (too staunch) nor Charlotte Rampling (too classy) nor Helen Mirren (too young!) would be such a natural fit. Smith possesses just the right measure of hard-nosed frailty and acerbic humour that makes her perfect for the part.
In a time of pandering ‘oldies’ movies whose prime purpose is to be light-hearted and uplifting, whilst touching lightly on the issues of growing old (Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel etc.) it’s refreshing to find a film aimed at this market segment which actually has some artistic merit. The Lady in the Van isn’t alone, of course, the recent Youth and 45 Years attest to a recent push to make the ‘grey’ film segment more than just entertaining fluff.
The film is interestingly structured and well told from the point of view of playwright, Alan Bennett, played to perfection by Alex Jennings in a dual role representing Bennett’s two states of mind.
Bennett’s story is laced with comedy but it would be a mistake to call the film a comedy. The film is being marketed as such, however, and it is possibly suffering somewhat because of this in the eyes of its audience. It would be more accurate to call the film a drama with comic elements. And thank goodness for these comic elements, as it would be a tough watch otherwise!
The Lady in the Van is an excellent film. It’s so good, in fact, that it beggars belief that Sony shelved it for nearly 12 months! A film of this quality is clearly worthy of a Boxing Day release, not languishing in release schedule hell like some B grade turkey. And a film of this quality is worthy of a viewing from anyone of any age.