The Lady in the Van Blu-ray Review

THE SET-UP
Playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) finds his life forever changed when a homeless woman (Maggie Smith) parks her van in his driveway and stays there for the next 15 years. Based on a mostly true story.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

THE DELIVERY
Based on the acclaimed book and stage play by Alan Bennett, The Lady in the Van is more than your average British comedy. There are expected British characters and British sensibilities at play to be sure, but beneath the themes of death and regret is a surprisingly funny, touching, and poignant story that sneaks up on you.

It might be foolish to characterize any film directed by Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, The Madness of King George) and starring Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) as surprisingly good, but one doesn’t expect a comedy about a crazy homeless woman to be all that impactful. However, the screenplay (adapted from the book and play by Bennett himself) is both delightful and emotional, and the deliberate direction by Hytner unfolds the mystery of who Miss Shepherd (Smith) actually is at the right pace.

The film explores Bennett’s real-life account of his experiences with Miss Shepherd, a homeless woman with mental health issues and a dark secret, who decided to park her van in his driveway in London in the 1970s and proceeded to live there for 15 years.


The film, above all else, is a showcase for Maggie Smith, who delivers an inspired performance that brings some relatability to what should be an unlikable character. She brings an undeniable quirky beauty to the film, and the lesson the film provides about the dignity of humanity is delivered in her emotionally affecting performance that earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

Alex Jennings is sublime as Alan Bennett, whose personal introspection (presented as “twin” Alan Bennetts representing his writer side and social side) and observations of Miss Shepard provide both the humor and the drama that drives the film. Indeed, Jennings’ brilliant delivery of Bennett’s signature narration is full of the dry wit that brings most of the film’s laughs, as well as its more poignant moments.

Director Hytner brings a loving, deft touch to the characters, providing an authenticity that is rarely seen in films today. Hytner himself is a long-time collaborator with Bennett, directing his works on both stage and screen, so he knows how to bring his work and his characters to life. His vision makes The Lady in the Van an entertaining, life-affirming viewing experience.



VIDEO AND AUDIO
Sony provides a fantastic video transfer for The Lady in the Van, with a sharp image free of film grain. The pattern on Alan Bennett’s tweed jacket would give lesser video transfers fits, but there is no aliasing present at any point here. It’s a top-notch video presentation. The audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio mix, with excellent clarity throughout the channels and no recognizable distortion. The understated score gets a robust presentation from the soundtrack.

SPECIAL FEATURES
Although The Lady in the Van may not be considered a tentpole home video release, Sony did well to include some solid extras on the disc, including a “making of” featurette, although most do not last very long. My only other complaint is that a photo of the real Miss Shepherd is never shown in any of the extras. It would have been a nice touch, especially since we do get to see the real-life Alan Bennett.

“Playing the Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd” featurette. Director Nicholas Hytner and actor Alex Jennings discuss Maggie Smith’s wonderful performance, and Smith herself describes how she approached injecting some sympathy into such a disagreeable character. Running time: 6:22.


“The Making of The Lady in the Van” featurette. Director Nicholas Hytner, actors Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith, and the real-life Alan Bennett all discuss the making of the film. A number of interesting tidbits are given, including the featuring of actors (including James Corden and Dominic Cooper) from the film The History Boys, another collaboration of Hytner and Bennett. Viewers might be surprised to learn that the movie was filmed at the actual house where Bennett and Miss Shepherd lived in London. Running time 13:42

The Visual Effects” featurette. The visual effects (both subtle and blatant) in the film are discussed, including the elaborate final scene of the film. Running time: 6:50

Deleted Scenes. Scenes include “You Could Get a Tent,” “I’m Preparing My Manifesto,” and “She Has a Low, Quiet Voice.” The deleted scenes provide some more character development, but since they aren’t essential to the film, viewers can see why they were dropped. Running time: 4:34.

Theatrical Trailer. Running time: 1:45.

Audio Commentary. Director Nicholas Hytner delivers an insightful and interesting commentary, discussing Smith and Jennings and their work, as well as more details on the real story the movie is based on. Hytner himself has a direct, personal connection to the story, of sorts; he collaborated with Bennett back when Miss Shepherd lived in his driveway, and as a resident in the same neighborhood, often saw her and the signature yellow van she lived in.


THE BOTTOM LINE: The Lady in the Van is a wonderful showcase for Maggie Smith
The Lady in the Van is a charming, quirky comedy that showcases a brilliant performance by Maggie Smith. A deft touch by director Hytner brings these characters to life with an authenticity that is rare in cinema. It is well worth a watch.

BLU-RAY SPECS
Release Date: April 19, 2016
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English, French and Portuguese DTS-HD MA; Spanish and Thai 5.1 Dolby Digital; English Audio Description 2.0
Subtitles: English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Chinese, French, Indonesian/Bahasa, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai
Special Features: “Playing the Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd” featurette; “The Making of The Lady in the Van” featurette; “The Visual Effects” featurette; Three deleted scenes; Theatrical trailer
Audio Commentary: With director Nicholas Hytner
Label: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Victor Medina is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He is the editor of several websites, and his writing credits include The Dallas Morning News, Yahoo News, Cinelinx.com and SportsIllustrated.com. He has served as a Dallas County election judge and on the Board of Directors of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. You can follow him on his blog, VictorMedina.com or on Twitter at @mrvictormedina. He can be reached by email at vic@victormedina.com.

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