The Lady in the Van began its life with playwright Alan Bennett in 1970 as a true story: a homeless woman took up residence in Bennett’s London driveway and stayed for 15 years. Bennett wrote first a memoir and then a 1999 stage play starring Maggie Smith as the woman known as Miss Shepherd. The 2015 feature film directed by Nicholas Hytner, shot at Bennett’s home and featuring Smith with two on-screen Bennetts (both played by Alex Jennings), continues this “meta” hall of mirrors exercise. It’s unsurprising that the film turns out to be as much or more about Bennett than its title character, and that’s its weakness since Smith’s character and performance are more interesting than he is. The gimmick of having him in duo, conversing with himself—one is Alan Bennett the writer and the other is Bennett the man—too quickly begins to feel just that, gimmicky, and it takes undeserved time away from Maggie Smith and unbalances the film. Fortunately it does not altogether capsize it and, though The Lady in the Van should have been more, it is well worth watching. How often are we afforded the opportunity of seeing the incomparable Smith (beyond her Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey) in a late-career performance?
When Bennett moves in the early 1970s into London’s tastefully boheme-gentrifying Camden Town, Shepherd has already ensconced herself on the block, shifting her dilapidated van from curb to curb as needed. None of the residents are particularly happy to have her park in front of their homes, but a shared sense of social responsibility keeps them from full-voiced complaint. As one explains, “That’s Camden. People wash up here”, or as Bennett himself puts it, “They tolerate Ms. Shepherd, their consciences absolved by her presence.” Eventually Shepherd moves her van to the curb in front of Bennett’s house and then, soon, into his unused driveway where over time the vehicle nestles itself among bags of refuse and even, on occasion, human waste—reminders of the fact that Shepherd’s olfactory presence is at least as imposing as her physical one.
With only one or two miscalculated but thankfully brief scenes that seem intended as “cute” leavening, the film remains clear-eyed and unsentimental. The Lady in the Van is about neither the whimsy and charms of old age nor the magnanimity of caretaking. Bennett is not a saint and Miss Shepherd is not winsome. Some of the most effective of his dual-characters’ dialogues are those in which he grudgingly considers what to do with her—the thanklessness of making an effort, of caring; and Miss Shepherd rarely attempts any heartfelt exchange, much less any currying of favor. She exists on the margins and though she seems bent on animal survival, she fears and disdains attempts at establishing human bonds, seeking help directly, or expressing gratitude.
Wary of one another, the very private Bennett and the prickly enigma that is Shepherd endure one another in an uneasy détente. The interest of the story accrues as we contemplate why the rather testy author accepts her in his world and where she came from and what she anticipates. Only bit by bit do a few tenuous elements of her past emerge—the sources of her fierce Catholicism and her fluent French, an apparent blackmailer (Jim Broadbent) who sometimes taps on her windshield at night.
Miss Shepherd is at once the fraught and fragile sum of a human life and a snarling, cornered beast demanding final refuge. Smith’s portrayal is lucid and astringent. Just as Shepherd makes nothing easy for her reluctant but persevering host, Smith courts no facile sympathy from us. Though in the end even catharsis is thin on the ground, The Lady in the Van leaves us perhaps more realistically alert. The film forces us to consider not the glories or self-satisfactions of caring but the hard necessities of it. In one of the most transparent performances of her long, illustrious career, Maggie Smith creates an unforgettable woman—vexing, courageous, tragic—a uniquely ordinary human mystery to whom attention must be paid.
(With Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Samuel Barnett, Claire Foy, Sacha Dhawan, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore)
– Hadley Hury