The Lady in the Van starring Maggie Smith


This post comes in two versions, long and short.

The short version: Quit reading this post and rent The Lady in the Van right now.

The long version: Allow me to recommend a lovely and moving film, not only to my fellow Anglophiles, but to anyone who enjoys a human interest story. It’s called The Lady in the Van, and it stars the indispensable Maggie Smith as the titular character. Written for the screen by the celebrated playwright Alan Bennett (who also penned a short story and stage play of the same title) it’s the “mostly true story” of his unlikely friendship with an eccentric homeless woman named Miss Mary Shepherd.

Miss Mary is the proverbial study in contradictions. She speaks like an educated woman but dressed like a derelict; is vain about her personal qualities, yet stinks to high heaven; claims to be fervently Christian, yet is generally snappish, rude, and ungrateful. As Bennett said of the real Miss Mary, “one was seldom able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.”

The movie opens in Camden Town, London, where Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is writing about the homeless lady who resides in a Bedford van parked in his garden. One of the movie’s clever conceits is presenting Bennett as two separate identities who consult, and occasionally argue, with one another. The Alan Bennett-who-writes sits at his desk night and day, trying out phrases and making pithy observations. The Alan Bennett-who-lives is tasked with actually experiencing the world, which he often seems to do reluctantly, with more than a little fear. Miss Mary, however, is fearless.

Lady in Van 1

As the movie opens, writer-Bennett describes her thus:

The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odor suggesting the inside of someone’s ear. Dank clothes are there, too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw. Plus, what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper. Miss Shepherd’s multi-flavored aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley’s Lavender always a favorite. And currently it is this genteel fragrance that dominates the second subject, as it were, in her odoriferous concerto.

Like many writers, Bennett can’t help observing, which leads to thinking. And in extreme causes, thinking may lead to uncomfortable insights. In his case, he becomes keenly aware of how often he would prefer to turn a blind eye on Miss Mary. Her rank odor is a barrier, and so is her absolute determination to have everything her own way. She never evinces gratitude for assistance (food, Christmas presents, attempts at friendly banter from Bennett’s more cheerful neighbors). Her van is an eyesore, made worse by the piles of refuse she stacks around it, and she thinks nothing of dictating to the homeowners around her, scolding their children for playing music, etc. But while Bennett’s polite, upwardly-mobile neighbors are mostly content to endure her, it’s only Bennett–frowning, groaning, reluctant-to-his-marrow Bennett–who proves willing to help her: not for a day, and not for a week, but for the rest of her life.

Lady in Van 3

Both Smith and Jennings are outstanding in their roles. Their characters are finely drawn, and their growing friendship is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious. In the end, Bennett learns a bit about the circumstances that drove Miss Mary to a life on the street, and a good deal more about himself. Rent this one–I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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