The Lady in the Van is the second film this year about an isolated and mentally vulnerable woman living in a state of siege in Camden Town. Miss Mary Shepherd, the enigmatic and determinedly eccentric old woman who takes up residence in the driveway of the writer Alan Bennett's house, is just as tortured in her way as her fellow Camden resident, beehived singer Amy Winehouse (whose story was told in Asif Kapadia's Amy).
As seen through Bennett's eyes, Miss Shepherd is both a comical figure and a tragic one. Scarfed up, shabbily dressed, reeking to high heaven and driving slowly and erratically in her Bedford van, she looks at first glance like one of those formidable harridans found in old Giles cartoons in the Daily Express.
A clapped-out van smelling of damp newspaper ("the essence of poverty," as Bennett describes the aroma) isn't the usual place of residence for characters played by Dame Maggie Smith. Late in her career, she has more often been cast as Lady Bracknell-types who live in country houses and upmarket hotels. She gives an exceptional performance here, one that doesn't try to be ingratiating in any way or to play on the audience's sense of pity. Her Miss Shepherd is ferocious, especially when the neighbours' children are practicing their musical instruments (something she cannot stand), or when Bennett is being nosy and trying to peer in to her van. She lacks any gratitude and won't reward the do-gooders who give her Christmas presents and plates of crème brûlée with so much as a nod, let alone a thank you. At the same time, Smith conveys her character's strange guilt, her fearfulness and her Mother Courage-like obstinacy. She is obnoxious in the extreme but you half admire her anyway.
Bennett's ambivalence towards the woman who lived outside his front door is evident from the outset. On the one hand, she is a problem. She fouls up his bathroom: in one comic scene, we see Bennett desperately applying the bleach to escape her stench. She becomes more and more incontinent the older she gets. ("Caring is about shit," Bennett observes in a matter-of-fact way.) On the other hand, Miss Shepherd is an opportunity, "raw material" for the writer. He is preying on her and using her for his own inventions. Whatever his Yorkshire roots, he is one of those affluent Camden types who like to share anecdotes about Miss Shepherd's wayward behaviour at dinner parties and then salve their consciences by being nice to her. This is only "a mostly true story". Bennett, in other words, had made up some of it.
One of the idiosyncrasies of the film (directed by Bennett's fellow Camden resident and regular collaborator Nicholas Hytner) is that it seems like a traditional, upscale British drama and yet is full of self-reflexive, Brechtian elements. There are two Bennetts, both played by Alex Jennings: the "self who does the living" and the "self who does the writing", who argue with one another throughout. In one scene, complicating matters further, the real Bennett puts in an appearance as one of the fictional Bennetts unveils a blue plaque celebrating the Lady in the Van. Characters talk from beyond the grave: even God puts in an appearance.
Part of the drama hinges on the author's own anxieties about whether he should be telling Miss Shepherd's story at all. These anxieties are exacerbated by the fact that his mother, who is roughly the same age as the woman in the van, is in poor health. Bennett has her put in a home while he invites a stranger to live outside his door for 15 years.
Bennett frequently questions his motives. (The film quotes William Hazlitt that good nature is "nine times out of 10 mere indolence of disposition".) He has a tendency to misinterpret these two old women in his life. When Miss Shepherd says she has seen a boa constrictor in Camden, he dismisses her claims but then discovers that escaped snakes may have indeed been on the prowl in Parkway. He is also caught out by his mother, whose descriptions of exotic birds on her garden wall turn out not to be so far-fetched after all. The film is affectionately waspish about Bennett's neighbours, who include the exasperated Rufus (Roger Allam) and the flighty Ursula Vaughan Williams (Frances de la Tour). Part of the point is that they are just as idiosyncratic as Miss Shepherd. They patronise her at their peril.
Hytner opens The Lady in the Van with contrasting scenes, hinting at the different directions in which the film will pull. A disturbing overture of an accident on a quiet country road leaves blood spattered on a windscreen. Meanwhile, we see black-and-white footage of a classical music concert. The music hints at a calmness, beauty and discipline lacking in Miss Shepherd's chaotic present-day life. There are references to her training as a pianist and hints that she might once have been a virtuoso.
The starting point to The Lady in the Van is a homeless woman whose van the author reluctantly helps push down the road. From this unpromising beginning, the film-makers develop a complex story. This is a mystery film that has thriller elements. Something traumatic happened in Miss Shepherd's past that allows a spiv-like old-timer (an enjoyably seedy Jim Broadbent) to blackmail her. It is a very British comedy, which throws in references to Radio 4, Margaret Thatcher (Miss Shepherd bears a passing resemblance) and elements of slapstick. The screenplay touches on guilt, atonement and how nastily nuns can behave.
It is partly about illness and old age, and it is a story of an author in search of a subject. Thanks to the richness of Maggie Smith's performance, a cantankerous bigot who leaves shit and chaos in her wake ends up seeming a tragic heroine, far more sinned against than sinning.
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