The Lady in the Van features Dame Maggie Smith as the incorrigible vagabond Miss Shepherd who parks her van outside playwright Alan Bennett’s London home and procedes to stay for another sixteen years.
The irascible, fiercely independent Miss Shepherd is a role tailor-made for Maggie Smith who slips with consummate ease into a character displaying bigotry, appalling rudeness and general disregard for others, including Bennett; the sole person taking an interest in her welfare. Some sixteen years earlier (2000), Maggie Smith played the same role in the stage production written by Alan Bennett for which she received a Best Actress nomination for the Olivier Awards. This role was reprised once more in 2009 in a BBC Radio 4 adaptation, again with Maggie Smith as the lady in the van.
The Lady in the Van is a story with many levels and is based on actual events. The difficult, obsessive Miss Shepherd is at first glance a thoroughly dislikable character. Dressed in rags, filthy, appalling personal hygiene habits, highly secretive and protective of her past, willing to use the good intentions of Alan Bennett but unwilling to offer the most meagre gratitude or indeed anything beyond a perfunctory acknowledgement, Miss Shepherd is an enigma. And her firm intention is to ensure her past remains a mystery.
Miss Shepherd’s bright yellow van parked in full view of Alan Bennett’s writing desk is a presence that cannot be ignored. A socialist at heart, he alone amongst some rather toffy, intolerant neighbours, is intrigued by the persona of Miss Shepherd and her shrouded prior life. Bennett’s exploration of Miss Shepherd’s past reveals a person who was once a critically acclaimed musician only to be consumed by a series of tragic events that led to her present situation.
A great joy of this film is the empathy and understanding that develops between Bennett and Miss Shepherd. Building the trust and faith to allow this is a slow and difficult process, hampered at every step by Miss Shepherds fear of further hurt. As we come to understand Miss Shepherd, we also see another face of Alan Bennett very cleverly portrayed by two Alan Bennetts frequently appearing on screen simultaneously; one being the writer and the other the man of reason. They debate their perceptions of Miss Shepherd. The writer displaying an empathy for the person while the voice of reason reflecting views that correspond more closely with commonly held and less tolerant perceptions regarding homelessness, mental illness, privacy and hygiene. Frequently Alan Bennett the writer and man of social conscience is ridiculed for his stance. The interaction is often humorous but always insightful and a vital thread of the narrative.
Alan Bennett is played superbly by Alex Jennings in this heartwarming true life story that carries a powerful message. Behind appearances there is always another story; one that requires tolerance and understanding to be fully appreciated. Alan Bennett himself plays a cameo role towards the end of the film.
The Lady in the Van is highly recommended.
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Screenplay: Alan Bennett
Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam.
Running time: 104 minutes
Distributed by Sony Picture Classics – Available on DVD from 16 April 2016.