Rating: B/ Based on playwright/writer Alan Bennett’s memoir of the same title, The Lady in the Van is a stranger-than-fiction true story with an excellent lead performance from Dame Maggie Smith as the titular character. Alex Jennings plays Bennett, a lonely middle-aged gay man who reluctantly allows a crusty homeless woman (Smith) with a haunted past to park her canary yellow van in his driveway.
The woman, Miss Shepherd, is rude, confrontational, and totally unappreciative of any attempts to improve her circumstances or help her out in any way, but she and Alan nonetheless form a tentative friendship, based on mutual eccentricity and loneliness. Miss Shepherd is clearly mentally ill, and she makes Alan’s life exponentially more difficult, yet she fascinates him in a way he can’t quite grasp, and he goes about writing a book about her life and the strange but profound effect she has had on him.
The Lady in the Van makes no attempt to make Miss Shepherd into anything but what she is; a cranky, obstinate old shrew. Often you get the feeling that Bennett taking her in was hardly worth the effort, but you see flickers of humanity behind her sullen exterior, partially thanks to Maggie Smith’s unapologetic but strangely moving performance. The movie is better before it goes into a full-out flight of fantasy in the last act, and the scenes of Bennett talking to his duplicate and creative muse are a bit confusing, making you wonder who is really the crazy one here?; which is perhaps the point.
The movie reminds you not to take people for granted; that everyone has had some kind of difficulty or struggle and that people are not always what they seem. Bennett has had a lifelong struggle living up to the expectations of his disapproving mother (Gwen Taylor) and his homosexuality is not exactly his best-kept secret, and Miss Shepherd is tormented by an event in her past and is regularly blackmailed by a opportunist (Jim Broadbent) who thinks that he can use her massive level of guilt to milk her for all she’s worth.
The cast is altogether strong and the film finds humor in Smith’s odd and mentally unbalanced character without seeming mean-spirited or exploitative. I wondered if Bennett perhaps didn’t like getting a best-seller out of Miss Shepherd’s story more than he liked the old woman herself, but that, I suppose, is neither here nor there.
The point is, Miss Shepherd might not have been the most likable old woman in the world, but she was always deeply, heartbreakingly human, an oddball who had been dismissed and even ostracized by the general public for her bizarre and sometimes outrageously rude behavior before Alan Bennett took a chance on her. It might not have been an easy ride, but he was offered glimpses of the troubled but fascinating woman behind what is essentially a stereotype, the ‘crazy bag lady.’
People like Miss Shepherd are a dime a dozen, but usually they’re the people we see through, the people selling flowers in the street and pushing their shopping cards across the freeways that we not only don’t acknowledge, we in all probability try to avoid. The Lady in the Van is a minimally sentimental ode to those societal misfits; what stories they must have! If you like gentle, small-scale Brit dramas that touch on the offbeat aspects of human nature, this movie is for you. It’s not action-packed, but it’s touching and endlessly relevant.