Smith's stellar performance as the van lady
By Beryl Rule
The Lady in the Van is based on British playwright Alan Bennett’s real life experience, when he allowed elderly Miss Mary Shepherd - they always addressed one another formally - to park her van in his drive way, and live in it, for 15 years.
In the film Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is a sort of motorised bag lady. Her ever-increasing assortment of bags surrounds the van, as does the stench which issues from within and without. She is bigoted, cantankerous, manipulative, ungracious and ungrateful, and none of the neighbours, or indeed Bennett himself (Alex Jennings) really understands why he allows what was meant to be a short stay to extend so long.
He finds decision-making hard because his two selves – the observant, critical writer and the reticent man – seldom agree, and while physically repelled by Miss Shepherd, he finds himself driven to protect her. Giving her drive-way sanctuary becomes the easiest way to do it. When a group of neighbours, uneasy that the van lowers the tone of their street, are discussing Bennett’s quixotic action, only one is discerning enough to say he is doing it “because she is a human being too”.
The role of Mary is another triumph for the incomparable Maggie Smith. Every movement, inflexion and darting glance from those hooded eyes stamps the van lady’s character. Smith is lordly and querulous, fear-ridden and supremely confident, cuttingly sane yet alarmingly loopy. And in rare moments of sheer joy, as she paints her van vibrant yellow (the surface is knobbly because some cake was dropped into the paint pot!), hurtles full speed down the street in her wheelchair, and rides a merry-go-round by the sea, she is irresistible.
There are plenty of humorous moments, but telling scenes showing the attitude of the middle-class neighbours and the Catholic Church. Miss Shepherd goes regularly to Confession – the priest has to keep a spray of freshener on hand so the next comer can bear to enter the confessional – and believes she has regular communications from the Virgin Mary. Discovering she had once been a nun, Bennett goes to seek help from the convent when she becomes seriously ill. She had been rejected for arguing too much, he is told, and nuns do not make house calls. When he insists something should be done, he is told grudgingly that he will have to fill in a form.
With unusual passion, Bennett rounds on a visiting social worker who designates him as Miss Shepherd’s carer and insists he is no such thing, but in fact he is, cleaning up after her as he never has to do in the case of his ageing mother, who is tidily committed into full-time care. The impression remains that, despite her secret burden of fear and guilt and her many privations, Mary Shepherd lives more fully than Mrs Bennett, who gently fades away.
“Going downhill is uphill work,” one character comments, and the film bears this out. But it is also a poignant reminder that the dirty, smelly and irascible Mary is not the full story: once she was young, hopeful and had gifts to offer the world.