Based on Alan Bennett’s memoir and play of the same name, The Lady in the Van is a poignant British import with Maggie Smith reprising her stage role of Miss Shepherd with grit and comical egotism. Not surprisingly, Smith is excellent as the eccentric vagabond wholly comfortable with her transient lifestyle, complemented by Alex Jennings’ terse interpretation of playwright Alan Bennett. Director Nicholas Hytner last collaborated with Bennett in another adaptation of his play “The History Boys” in 2006, and fans will appreciate knowing this film also reunites many cast members from that film, including Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Frances de la Tour in cameos.
This “mostly true story” is told by Alan Bennett (Jennings) as he recalls his dealings with the vagabond Miss Shepherd and how their unusual bond came to be. After Miss Shepherd parks her nomadic van in Bennett’s driveway for what was only supposed to be a few months, this quickly turns into 15 years, thus beginning a complicated relationship that endures for a decade and a half.
It turns out the mysterious and elusive Miss Shepherd, her first name either Mary or Margaret, is far from being a pleasant tenant. On the run from the law, she covets her past like a holy relic. The neighborhood she plants herself in includes strained relationships with her new neighbors, many which try their best to help out as best they can. Their gestures of kindness go thankless, performed more out of pitying her advanced age and deflated social status than pure obligation. They mean well, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact Miss Shepherd is helped materially rather than emotionally – or even socially; a much easier task than forming real attachment and personal responsibility to another human being.
However, it’s Bennett who ends up truly helping her and, after a spell, ultimately learning more about her than anyone else would have realized – himself included.
It’s a mystery and a treat how regal actress Maggie Smith continues to do what she does with impetuous fortitude. Smith plays her role to perfection as the wildly honest cantankerous Miss Shepherd. However, the character’s kooky and independent demeanor is matched by a melancholic past that Shepherd conceals and shares only in small increments to Bennett, one where every line and wrinkle is etched and evoked in Smith’s face.
Alex Jennings is her counterpart as the sardonic and stoic Bennett, already guilt ridden over not caring for his own mother and sending her to a nursing home. Bennett finds comfort in taking old Shepherd, but keeping his distance as an observer – as a writer would. It’s here where the film employ a fun cinematic trick by letting Jennings play both his real and imagined write self, allowing his subconscious flesh out exposition and relay his inner thoughts and turmoil.
At its heart, here is a film about the nature of writing and the search for truth. For Bennett, the act of writing is a solitary one, which is why he often refers to writing as talking to one’s self (and hence the technique). By the end, Bennett has learned something about himself not just from his writing about Miss Shepherd, but from the experience itself. The truth of Miss Shepherd is elusive, as only she can shed light on her mysterious past, but even her perspective isn’t as concrete as one would hope. The audience can never be too sure if Shepherd is telling the truth.
Further complicating matters is that even Bennett begins to question the validity of his own claims while telling the story (usually his writer’s subconscious informing us certain things may not be entirely on the level), proving that he’s also an unreliable narrator in the process, and is most likely guilty of dabbling in hyperbole for the sake of storytelling.
Lastly, there is a deeper issue at the film’s core, behind the adept dialogue and comedic tidings of Maggie Smith, lies a problem that is all too real. The key to understanding and addressing the growing homeless problem, not just in England but the United States as well, may be a better understanding of the person in a humane way. Rather than handling homelessness as an ideologically abstract idea, usually further dehumanized by sterile statistics, the problem may be best handled in the manner exhibited by Bennett’s personal compassion.
It’s not Bennett’s acts of kindness and tolerance that ultimately make him the better person; it’s his long term commitment to Miss Shepherd. He isn’t a benevolent protagonist either, and taking on the role was never easy for him. It’s his flawed social detachment, and his ability to help in spite of it, which makes his actions all the more admirable.
But the film’s power in humanizing Miss Shepherd’s character via Bennett’s perspective leaves the audience with a larger understanding of its central character, in spite of her poverty. As he soon comes to learn, she’s more than the dirty facade the world sees, demonstrating a fluency in speaking French as well as a hidden knowledge in music.
With the incomparable Maggie Smith in the lead and Alan Bennett’s finely tuned script, The Lady in the Van is a touching story of understanding that truly appreciates the craft of writing. The two leads share an onscreen chemistry that is convincing and sweet, forged by great acting and honesty. Here is a film that’s never overly sentimental or hackneyed, despite its subject matter, with a real emphasis on wit and heart over simple narrative, and is better for it.