Veteran actress Maggie Smith is The Lady in the Van, which is a film that is noted to be a “mostly true story” in the opening credits. The playwright Alan Bennett (The History Boys) wrote this screenplay about the odd woman who parked her van in his driveway. He expected her residence to be only for about three months, and instead, she ended up staying there for 15 years. The film is rated PG-13 for a brief unsettling image.
The homeless Miss Mary Shepherd, (or is it Margaret? the neighbors ask as they soon discover that she has many secrets) is a cantankerous eccentric who stretches the good people of Camden to the ends of their compassion. (The film was shot at the same house on the same street where the real events took place.)
The screenplay took plenty of liberties with the character of Alan, a somewhat reclusive writer played by Alex Jennings, who we see as two people, the playwright typing the story out, and the compassionate man who allows Miss Shepherd to reside in his driveway. He talks to himself seemingly having no one else close to listen to him.
Bit by bit, Miss Shepherd’s tragic life is revealed to us, in part explaining how she ended up homeless, living out of her van. The homeless don’t get that way for no good reason; often they are plagued by mental illness, and substance abuse. Ms. Shepherd is no exception in that there are reasons for her present state.
The neighborhood portrayed was a shining example of how more people should accept and help those in need. This took place beginning in the 1970’s, and perhaps there was more tolerance in England then or even today (I can’t speak to England’s moral values), but in America, the media portray the homeless as if there is something morally wrong with them, and do not paint them in a sympathetic light for who they really are. Facebook is filled with tirades against helping the homeless or those out of work, showing little understanding of the emotional issues that helped them get that way. Poverty seems to be interpreted as a moral failing which informs the ignorant statements I see from time to time. I can only hope that anyone seeing this film will find their conscience and compassion activated by the story, and be more tolerant and giving to those in need.
Interestingly, in 1999, Maggie Smith played the same character in Bennett’s play of the same name on stage. Maggie Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her performance in this film. Jim Broadbent has a role in the film as well, a mysterious character till the end when all is revealed.
If you’re an anglophile, you will love this film. If you are a fan of Maggie Smith, you will love this film. And if neither of those applies, you might like it just for the quiet, compassionate little mystery that it is.