The Lady in the Van

March 10, 2016
Maggie Smith in 'The Lady in the Van' (2015)
Maggie Smith in 'The Lady in the Van' (2015)

Casting Maggie Smith in anything is a reliable way of collecting a few favourable reviews and a tidy sum at the the box office. Make it an Alan Bennett script and the percentages keep improving. And so we have The Lady in the Van, a likeable film with a few fanciful touches that should elicit neither extravagant praise nor condemnation.

Director, Nicholas Hytner, who has worked with Bennett on two previous movies, has given us an old-fashioned British production – civilised and humorous, with crisp dialogue and characters that never do anything especially nasty to each other. On the contrary, despite their small displays of snobbery and selfishness, all the folk in this part of Camden Town turn out to be kind-hearted types.

This compassionate view of the English is familiar from Bennett’s plays, fictions and memoirs, but nowadays it feels steeped in nostalgia. It’s a vision of the way people used to be in the years before Thatcherism, when resilience, good humour and solidarity were the order of the day. Much of Britain may still be like this, but rising levels of inequality have eroded the foundations of that working-class idyll. Life at the bottom is now more likely to be squalid, violent and hopeless.

Bennett knows this, but in interviews he seems to believe that David Cameron is the problem and Jeremy Corbyn the answer, which seems rather far-fetched.

The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Miss Shepherd, an elderly vagrant for whom Bennett provided a parking place. He offered her the use of his driveway for a few weeks, but she stayed for fifteen years. Fortunately we only get the highlights.

At the beginning of the story Bennett, beautifully played by Alex Jennings, is new to the neighbourhood. It is the early 1970s, and he is becoming successful as a writer and occasional deliverer of on-stage monologues. The people across the road, Rufus and Pauline (Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay), are middle-class climbers with cultural pretentions. A more congenial neighbour is Ursula Vaughan-Williams (Frances De la Tour), the widow of the composer.

Into this small, cosy world rolls Miss Shepherd, a bag lady in a beaten-up van, for whom personal freshness is only a distant memory. Nobody wants her parked in front of their house, but they feel constrained to be charitable and send occasional gifts of food. For her part, Miss Shepherd has no inclination for gratitude. She is imperious to the point of rudeness, and also a little batty. When she first encounters Bennett she asks him if he might be St. John the Baptist.

Bennett suggests Miss Shepherd park in his driveway as a way of protecting her from hooligans who rock her van at night, and from the local Council which is introducing new parking restrictions. It may seem a saintly gesture, but there is another aspect to the writer’s hospitality. He finds Miss Shepherd to be a fascinating puzzle to be gradually pieced together. She is clearly educated, as she speaks fluent French. She is a devout Catholic who prays loudly and fervently in the back of the van. She understands music too, although she can’t bear to hear it played. He doesn’t even know whether her name is Mary or Margaret. And who is the mysterious character who turns up late at night and knocks on the window of the van, demanding money?

Bennett discusses the enigma that is Miss Shepherd at great length with himself. It is the chief conceit of this movie that there are two Alans in the house: “There is the one who does the writing. And there is the one who does the living.” The Alans bicker with one another, as they wonder whether or not Miss Shepherd is good subject matter.

In fact she turned out to be a literary goldmine. Bennett brought out his memoir in 1989, turned it into a stage play in 1999, and a radio production in 2009. Maggie Smith was there at every turn, so there was never any question of another actress being considered for the film role.

Whether we meet her at Downton Abbey or in a broken-down van in Camden Town, Smith has an aristocratic bearing that sets her apart from the common run of humanity. Miss Shepherd may smell like a garbage dump, but she feels ineffably superior to anyone else in the street. Her self-assurance is so invincible that like Bennett and the neighbours, we are gradually won around to the same point of view.

The Lady in the Van
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by Alan Bennett
Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay
UK, rated M, 104 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12th March, 2016.