The Lady in the Van, if we were to believe the previews, is a comedy about a feisty homeless woman played by Maggie Smith. It should be heart-warming, uplifting, life-affirming, and so forth. Well, I suppose that gets people into the theater, but guess what? It’s not really that kind of a movie. The film was written by Alan Bennett, one of England’s foremost playwrights, and Bennett does not go in for sentiment. The Lady in the Van is in fact a very clever argument against it, and for a better understanding of human nature.
The story is based on an actual woman named Mary Shepherd, who lived in a van on Mr. Bennett’s street in London in the 1980s, annoying the neighbors with her unpleasant odor, voluminous garbage, and obnoxious attitude. Bennett eventually allowed her to park in his driveway, where she stayed for 15 years.
The film is directed by long-time Bennett cohort Nicholas Hytner. It was originally a stage play, and the way the story is told is just as interesting—actually more so—than the story itself. The fussy, retiring author Bennett is played, marvelously, by Alex Jennings, whose oddly abrasive northern English drawl provides the film’s narrative framework. He rarely goes out, which limits his choice of subject matter, and the one person he talks to the most is himself. We are shown this literally in the form of two Bennetts, Jennings the actor split into two—one of them the man who lives the life, the other who writes about it. As the film continues, we see how life becomes wrapped up in fiction—the presentation of the story influencing the way we remember real life.
One of the primary effects of all this is to deflate any self-important pretensions we may have about ourselves. Which is where Maggie Smith comes in. As the homeless woman, she is a monumental terror—there’s nothing cute about the performance. It’s fierce, fearless, uncompromising, and without a shred of vanity. Miss Shepherd has no regard for social niceties, or even gratitude. Bennett allows her to stay not because he likes her, but because he’s too timid to push her away. In her moments of frailty she still manages to be unpleasant—pride is her only remaining virtue.
She has a mysterious past, and through the veils of her delusion we are gradually allowed to glimpse it. The film means us to see this person as she is rather than as anything we would wish her to be, and to understand that that alone is real compassion. Bennett and Hytner are aware that hers is a sad story, but they let that speak for itself. We don’t need it underlined. Instead, through Bennett’s voice and Jennings’ performance, we attain a sort of terrible distance, a sense of humor that can laugh at the worst in us. And when the story reaches its apotheosis, the picture takes off into irreverent laughter, a freedom from constraint only attainable through art.
Not a major work, but deliberately, almost maliciously minor, The Lady in the Van has the last laugh, on us.