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The Lady in the Van

D: Nicholas Hytner / 104m

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Gwen Taylor, David Calder, Claire Foy, Cecilia Noble

If you lived in a certain road in Camden, London in the early Seventies, then you would have known about, and probably encountered, the lady in the van, otherwise known as Miss Shepherd (Smith). She lived in and out of her Bedford van, a dilapidated vehicle that she’d owned for years, and would park outside people’s properties as and when she decided, and for as long as she wished. She was cantankerous, eccentric, less than hygienic, and lived in fear of the police, from whom she was “on the run” following a road accident that occurred several years before and for which she blamed herself.

When the playwright Alan Bennett (Jennings) moved into that certain road, he too became aware of Miss Shepherd – along with all the other residents – and her appearance and lifestyle (for lack of a better word) intrigued him. He maintained a respectful distance though, and though he was generally polite to her, like everyone else he tried to have as little to do with her as possible. But as his time there went on, Bennett began to have more and more to do with her, until one day she mentioned that the solution to the problem of her parking outside people’s homes was off-road parking, in someone’s drive perhaps. Bennett later agreed that Miss Shepherd could park her van on his driveway.

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An arrangement that was supposed to last a few months, until Miss Shepherd got herself “sorted out” eventually lasted a lot longer: fifteen years. During that time, Bennett began to discover things about Miss Shepherd that indicated she was the victim of not just the road accident’s effect on her, but also a series of personal tragedies that happened before then. His understanding of her behaviour, and the ways in which he dealt with her suspicious attitudes, while gaining a degree of trust, took years to develop, but Bennett’s patient, attentive nature worked where few other people would have succeeded – even if she did drive him mad.

In adapting his own original work – a book and subsequent stage play performed in 1999 – Bennett has retained the charm and wit of his original dialogue, while keeping things fresh for today’s audiences. There’s a faint whiff of nostalgia that lingers in some of the scenes though, as Miss Shepherd’s continued presence in the road is tolerated with much more civility and resigned acceptance than would probably be the case today. Bennett’s neighbours range from the property-price conscious Rufus (Allam) and Pauline (Findlay), to the elegant widow of the composer Vaughan Williams (de la Tour), but all of them treat Miss Shepherd with a bemused affability once her van is on Bennett’s drive. She’s like the dotty (slightly smelly) old aunt that a lot of families have, and who is left to her own devices. It may well have been a different story behind the other residents’ curtains, but in public this is the face of a united community, and one that doesn’t entirely resent an outsider’s imposition on their way of life.

As for Bennett, his reactions to Miss Shepherd are viewed through the device of having two of him: the Alan Bennett who lives his life, and the Alan Bennett who writes about everything. The former is more timid but has to deal with Miss Shepherd on a daily basis; the latter is a clever construct that serves to highlight the former’s timidity while also driving him to make better decisions regarding himself (themselves?) and Miss Shepherd. (It’s a little like having an author challenge himself as to the veracity of the story he’s telling.) Bennett confers with himself on numerous occasions, and the effect is to see into Bennett’s mind at the time, and the contradictions that resided there, such as his dislike for Miss Shepherd having to battle with his concern for her as a human being.

THE LADY IN THE VAN

Once Miss Shepherd is established on Bennett’s drive, the movie begins to explore in richer detail the tragedies that befell her in her earlier life. As the evidence mounts up and we see a succession of betrayals and the impact they’ve had on her, we see just how Miss Shepherd has come to be living this unfortunate existence. These betrayals also help to explain her behaviour, including a strange aversion to music. And as the picture becomes clearer, it becomes almost impossible not to sympathise with her misfortune (even if her behaviour is still mostly the other side of obnoxious).

In portraying these reversals of fortune, Bennett also manages to relay the inner strength and determination that Miss Shepherd must have armoured herself with in order to survive. Her abrupt nature may push people away, but this also keeps her safe. It’s a terrible way to live, and Bennett makes it clear that he feels her attitude was unnecessary, but understandable as well. It’s this poignancy that pervades the movie’s second half and enriches it at the same time. With Hytner taking a measured, somewhat sedate approach to the narrative, Bennett’s tale becomes incredibly, unfathomably sad, until the extent of the tragedies Miss Shepherd has suffered is put into such sharp relief that it’s almost unbearable to watch.

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This being an Alan Bennett tale there’s still plenty of droll humour to enjoy, as well as Miss Shepherd’s more caustic comments, and the relationship between Bennett and himself – like an old married couple – is beautifully observed. As the wounded Miss Shepherd, Smith is superb, peeling back the layers of pain that she’s hid behind to reveal a woman whose dulled ambitions and stalled emotions have left her unable to live the life she so desperately needed. Smith played the role originally on stage, and you can sense how comfortable she is in the role, and how focused she is on showing the various contradictions that make up Miss Shepherd’s fractured personality. She’s matched by Jennings, who gives an equally impressive performance(s) as Bennett, capturing the writer’s fey manner, natural petulance, and eye for little details.

It’s an impressive movie over all, with only a couple of aspects proving problematical. Broadbent’s turn as an ex-policeman who knows about the road accident and uses it for his own selfish ends doesn’t seem likely, and his reason for doing so is never properly explained by the script. And there are brief cameos from the cast of Hytner’s movie of The History Boys (2006), which instead of being pleasing are often distracting and take the viewer out of the movie (oh, look it’s James Corden; oh, hang on, that’s Dominic Cooper). Otherwise, The Lady in the Van maintains a rewarding sense of a tale well told, and remains a fitting tribute to a woman whose acceptance of her way of life was life-affirming in ways we may never fully appreciate (though the movie does its best to help us along).

Rating: 8/10 – while it may feel slight and lacking in depth at first, The Lady in the Van soon proves itself to be a moving, insightful look at human perseverance and how someone can adapt to diminished opportunities when necessary; with dry, contemplative moments of comedy and a surfeit of winning moments, Bennett’s tale is a pleasure to witness, and an absorbing tribute to the life of one Margaret Fairchild.

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