The Lady in the Van
by Lisa Dib
Well, if you were playing Alan Bennett, you would probably kick the accent up a bit too, wouldn’t you? Alex Jennings (The Queen) plays playwright and author Bennett wonderfully, having a lot of fun with Bennett’s famous Northern accent, and playing off co-star Maggie Smith with aplomb.
The Lady in the Van, based on Bennett’s 1989 book (and 1999 stage production), is a “mostly true” tale of the weird, strained and unique relationship between Bennett and Mary Shepherd (Smith, the aforementioned Lady), who lived in her van in Bennett’s driveway for fifteen years. The film is lovingly directed by Nicholas Hynter, a prominent stage and opera director who directed the book’s theatrical run and worked frequently with Bennett; it dives between whimsy and tragedy without quite settling, but is human and moving nonetheless.
One narrative function that is integral to the uniqueness of the film is the use of Bennett as two versions of himself; in a Kaufman-esque move, Bennett ‘talks to himself’ constantly in his home, as ‘the one that writes’ and ‘the one that lives’ argue softly and ever-so-Britishly with one another. This functions turns odd or distracting only when Bennett purposely inserts falsehoods into the story, letting the audience know ("She never said that", one Bennett says to the other) but still allowing it into the story. What is the purpose of deliberately mistelling her story?
The Lady in the Van is soaked in Britannia; most of the characters are Bennett’s middle-class Camden Town neighbours who are, at best, politely passive-aggressive and, at worst, snobbish and crass. Shepherd’s move into the neighbourhood inserts a loud and daily sense of wealthy guilty into their routine; they resent her for reminding them of their privilege; their trips to the opera or the theatre are marred by her presence, her smell of poverty, her unappealing living situation, as they watch her in the knocked-up van and think, “Gosh, what do you do, eh?"
The relationship between Bennett and Shepherd is best exemplified by two things: the strained lack of emotion between them in their decade-plus arrangement (calling each other “Mr Bennett and “Miss Shepherd” the entire time) is evidence of Bennett’s wish not to become attached to the woman, and Shepherd’s wish not to burden others, or have them find about anything of her ‘past’. Secondly, Hynter maintains subtle physical boundaries that shows the disconnection between them until quite late in the game: Bennett often speaks to Shepherd through a closed window, or standing on the inside of his open doorway, her on the mere other side of the welcome mat and yet seemingly yards away. Shepherd never allows anyone too close to the inside of her van, where her entire life now resides.
Though the film is a witty, charming comedy, there is tragedy in the story of Shepherd that makes the heart heavy by the film’s end. Her life, uniquely difficult and sad, was no different in many ways to that of anyone you might see on the streets; had some kindness or empathy been extended to her, perhaps things would be different. Bennett is made disheartened by Shepherd’s mere existence thanks to his constant comparing of her to his own mother; his feeling the need to do right by Shepherd directly mirrors his guilt at feeling as if he has not done right by his mother, whose health, both physical and mental, deteriorates tragically through the film.
Smith plays Shepherd with all the complexity and tragic comedy you might expect of such a character; Shepherd is not a malicious or vindictive person, but an unwell and hard-done-by elderly woman, who has, above all else, her God, her pride and her dignity. That last one is put to the test on many occasions (Bennett spends a lot of time discussing her smell, her hygiene and her, er, toiletry habits - I mean, he can’t find it too unsurprising, she’s bloody homeless) but she remains resolute and confident, even when it is clear that she has a world of troubles chasing her at every turn.
The clever script (Bennett’s self-consciousness and professional timidity make for a sort of a classically British schadenfreude) climaxes into a strange, ill-fitting ending that ups the whimsy a little too high; Dame Maggie played the complicated, fiercely religious, deeply troubled but talented Shepherd beautifully and with layer upon layer, and the oddly-shaped ending tacked on feels silly. It is, however, forgivable, since the hour-thirty before that had been so delightful, heart-rending and cheeky.
The Lady in the Van is in cinemas now.