The Wonderful Maggie Smith!

The fact that she has used your toilet may give her squatting rights. Social worker to Alan Bennett

The mysterious Miss Shepherd

By Roger Childs

Lady in the VanThis movie starts with Margaret/Mary Shepherd having an accident while driving a van and ends with a plaque being unveiled in suburban London to The Lady in the Van.

In between times “the lady” has spent her last 15 years living in playwright Alan Bennett’s driveway in Camden Town.

Sounds boring? No way! This is a fascinating story, loosely based on the truth, with Maggie Smith giving a superb performance in the lead role. Four stars.

Made for the part

Sometimes a character movie provides the ideal role for a particular actor. The part of the famous painter JWH Turner was just made for Timothy Spall and he relished the challenge. In The Lady in the Van, Maggie Smith is at her imperious, arrogant best playing the mysterious Miss Shepherd.

Lady in the Van 2She is well backed up by co-star Alex Jennings playing Alan Bennett, and a cast of fellow residents who live in the street where Miss Sheppard parks her van.

She is an elderly, down and out, transient, and the treat for the viewer is finding out how she got into her poverty stricken state and sorting out fact from fiction.

Her experience has in fact involved a close relationship with the Catholic Church, a musical career and time in a nunnery. I’ll say no more on the plot!

Humour and pathos

Lady in the Van 1The film could have lapsed into American-style schmaltz, but Smith’s superb performance and plenty of “laugh out loud” humour keeps it on track.

At the heart of The Lady in the Van is the unfolding relationship which develops between Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd. Their exchanges range from the basic and hilarious to the sympathetic and poignant.

The role of the neighbours is also important in keeping the story moving, especially their changing attitudes to the stranger in their midst.

A quality film

Two well-heeled neighbours confront Miss Shepherd
Two well-heeled neighbours confront Miss Shepherd

Director  Nicholas Hytner  skilfully handles the challenges of maintaining the viewer’s interest in a limited range of settings. Consequently, tight editing is a feature and there are timely switches of location. Appropriately, Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay and this gives the story authenticity and credibility.

There are many hilarious lines and scenes, some of which involve exchanges with a social worker and others which relate to the most basic of human functions.

One element that is less than convincing, is Bennett talking to himself, scenes which features two figures: the writer and his alter ego.

However, overall this is a very enjoyable movie which is well worth a look.