The Lady in the Van
The Lady in the Van

Golden Years: 45 Years, The Lady in the Van

by / Feb. 11, 2016 8am EST

This being the week of Valentine’s Day, I am reminded of the once perennial tag for romantic movies: “See it with someone you love.” Exactly the opposite might be the best advice for the Oscar nominated 45 Years, which opens Friday at the Amherst and Eastern Hills cinemas: Couples still getting to know one another should be okay with it, but those who have been together for any length of time may find it prompting uncomfortable conversations.

The title refers to the duration of the marriage between Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay). Childless and retired from their jobs as a school teacher and a factory manager, they live a sedate life in a bucolic English village. We observe them in the week leading up to a party celebrating their anniversary. (They missed having one for their 40th because of Geoff’s heart surgery.)

The Monday mail brings a letter for Geoff from Switzerland. The body of a woman has been found after 50 years in a crevasse, brought out now by global warming. The authorities believe it to be Katya, his girlfriend at the time, who fell during a hiking trip. Kate vaguely knew of this, but she and Geoff never talked about it. They chat some about it now, bringing up a few details she had never known. Funny, they both muse, how two people can now each other so long and still have hidden parts of their past.

But as the week goes on and she continues to prepare for their celebration, Kate becomes consumed by doubt. What did this woman really mean to her husband? And do his secrets change the nature of their marriage as she has understood it for so many years?

Adapted from David Constantine’s short story by writer-director Andrew Haigh (the HBO series Looking), 45 Years is reminiscent of James Joyce’s classic “The Dead.” It’s spare material in which much goes unsaid and you have to watch carefully for revealing details. But as acted by two performers whose careers extend back to the glory days of British cinema in the 1960s, it builds to a devastating conclusion. Rampling, who is nominated for Best Actress, has the showier part, but Courtenay is equally strong. Couples should be warned that, along with leaving the theater wondering about your partner’s life prior to meeting you (and whether you want to know any of it), you may find yourselves on opposite sides as to who most deserves your sympathy.

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Somewhat less rewarding but much safer for a Valentine’s Day date is The Lady in the Van. This “mostly true story” gives Maggie Smith fans plenty of opportunity to watch her in the kind of effortlessly arch and eccentric performance that made her dowager countess of Grantham the highlight of any episode of Downton Abbey.

Granted, on the surface her character here could hardly be more different: Miss Shepherd, which may or may not be her real name, is a homeless woman who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s in the London neighborhood of Camden. She resided in a ramshackle van, painted a color that can only be found in cans labeled “primer,” which was operational only enough to keep her ahead of parking regulations. As much a nuisance for her tart tongue as her malodorousness, Miss Shepherd was tolerated by the locals, nouveau riche whose liberal guilt prevented them from having her carted away. Chief among these was Alan Bennett, the playwright and all-around British institution on whose memoir the film is based. (The director is Nicolas Hytner, who previously filmed Bennett’s The History Boys and The Madness of King George.) Retiring by general nature as much as by being gay at a time when homosexuality had only just been decriminalized, Bennett found himself her barely willing sponsor, letting her move her van into his driveway when the authorities insisted that she get off the street.

The story is tricked up with melodramatic revelations and the gimmick of having two Bennett’s (both played by Alex Jennings) to represent barely discernible sides of the author’s character; there’s even a finale lifted from a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Forget all that—it’s Dame Maggie’s show all the way, and she throws herself into it with the kind of gusto the British use to freshen up a character you’ve seen them do before. That she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this role is a rare example of the Academy restraining its sentimentality. It opens Friday at the North Park and Eastern Hills Cinemas.