New: The Lady in the Van—A Playwright's Driveway Is a Lot to Be Thankful For

Gar Smith Opens January 22 at
Thursday January 21, 2016 - 02:03:00 PM

Opens Friday at the Landmark Clay and Century 9 in San Francisco
Opens January 29 at the Landmark Albany Twin in Berkeley

Maggie Smith is British acting royalty. At the age of 81, she is a multiple Oscar-winner and has been honored as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire -- the female equivalent of a knight. Best known as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films and as Downton Abbey's dirk-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham, Smith's title role in The Lady and the Van has won her nominations from both the Golden Globe and British Film Academy.

The latest honor for her stint as a proud and beleaguered vagrant is well deserved. It's quite a stretch from the corsets and courtesies of Downton Abbey to the Uptown Alleys of London's Camden Town—the unlikely one-time haunt of the irascible homeless rascal known as "Miss Shepherd"—but Dame Maggie inhabits her role as a daft, defiant street queen. She hoists her soiled skirts and runs away with the picture. 


But there is another key role in the story. Playwright Alan Bennett, who took pity on the desperate vagrant one day and invited her to briefly park her disabled van in the driveway of his home at 23 Gloucester Crescent. Little did Bennett realize that the van—with Miss Shepherd inside and her ever-growing bags of trash and refuse accumulating on the outside—would settle in and occupy the space for the next 15 years. 

Director Nicholas Hytner offers this description of the van lady: "She's ungrateful, ungracious, aggressive, rude, armor-plated, never gives an inch, smelly, stubborn. But she's kind of magnificent because she doesn't compromise. She lives exactly the way she wants to live.... She turns all those smug middle-class English people upside-down." 

And here is Mr. Bennett's take on his tenacious tenant: "She did exactly what she wanted. She also had no sense of humor at all. I never saw her laugh. She talked of herself in the third person, which is always a danger sign, I think. She was very strong-willed. Her will was much stronger than mine." 

Living in the Bay Area, with its own retinue of homeless souls roaming the streets, many audience members will find Miss Shepherd a somewhat familiar character—someone who lacks everything but bravely compensates with a sense of strong-willed self-importance. 

It was only after Miss Shepherd's death in 1989 that Bennett began to learn the surprising secrets of her life. (He first wrote about Miss Shepherd in a memoir in the London Review of Books. The Lady in the Van was later produced as a London stage play in 1999, staring Maggie Smith.) To Bennett's amazement, he discovered his rogue tenant once had been an artist of great renown in the concert halls of Europe. At one point, she tried, and failed, to become a nun. Throughout her later years, she was haunted by memories of a violent death and felt herself on the run from the law. Late in the film, Bennett opens packets of souvenirs from Miss Shepherd's hidden life. (It's easy to believe that the old performance playbills and other artifacts are, in fact, the actual memorabilia from Miss Shepherd's past.) 

Because The Lady in the Van is based on actual events, the producers decided to film it "on location"—on Bennett's driveway and inside his actual home. 

As Bennett, Alex Jennings was tasked with inhabiting a split personality—playing both a man who is simply trying to live his life and another man, a fretful observer, who feels compelled to write about the experience. Looking like a dowdy, bespectacled Peter O'Toole, Jennings captures Bennett's prissy habits and delightful dialect (a Northern strain of regional British that I'd never heard before). 

The filmmakers decided the best way to portray Bennett's divided self was to write roles for two Bennetts, living side by side in the cozy home, bickering, trading advice, and slinging complaints. As Bennett, Jennings is, quite literally, "beside himself." (Watching one "Bennett" tossing a book across the room where it is caught be the other "Bennett" will leave your brain wondering, "How the F did they DO that?") 

There are several subplots. The lady in the van makes mysterious visits to a distant domicile. A shadowy extortionist haunts her. (A very improbable story, it would seem.) Bennett is seen caring for his aging mum, who is becoming increasingly incapable of caring for herself—at the same time the playwright has become the unwilling steward of the seemingly indomitable Miss Shepherd. 

There are many hilarious lines ("The air freshener is behind the Virgin" rings in the mind) and several wacky exchanges that tumble into Monty Python territory. 

Special effects are limited to several appalling heaps of human feces (Sorry, Mr. DeMille, I wasn't ready for that close-up) and an ascension scene at the close that is simply divine. 

Late in the film, a gentleman shows up to complete Bennett's lonely personal life. As he's seen moving in, he tells Bennett, "I'm here. You don't have to talk to yourself any more"—thereby prompting Bennett's ever-present doppelganger to vanish. Finally, the closeted playwright and the lofty Londoner are reconciled. (One suspects the fellow seen settling into 23 Gloucester Crescent is Bennett's actual real-life mate.) 

This also is a guess, but I'm fairly certain that it is Bennett himself that we see in the final shot, wheeling down the street on a bicycle to join the small crowd gathered in the driveway of his home for the unveiling of a large blue wall plaque honoring Miss Shepherd. (Look for it the next time you're sightseeing in London.) 

One last note. The Sony Pictures press release regurgitates one of moviedom's oldest clichés when it describes the Shepherd/Bennett meeting as "a relationship that will change both their lives." Demonstrably not true. Neither character transforms the other (although, by the end of the film, Miss Shepherd herself somehow transmogrifies from "surly" to "adorable"). 

When all is said and done, these two people are who they are. Deal with it: and enjoy a lot of smiles along the way.