The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Alan Bennett's strained friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her temporarily to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home. She stayed there for 15 years. As the story develops Bennett learns that Miss Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild (died 1989), a former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot. She had played Chopin in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.
Prior to being loaded into the ambulance, she is seen sitting in a wheelchair with a cane in each hand. In the following shot, from the rear, both canes are held in the left hand and she is reaching in her right pocket for something. The next shot, from the front, shows her just placing the canes into her left hand and beginning to reach for her right pocket. See more »
The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odor suggesting the inside of someone's ear. Dank clothes are there, too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw. Plus, what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper. Miss Shepherd's multi-flavored aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley's Lavender always a favorite. And currently it is this genteel fragrance that dominates the second subject, ...
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During the first part of the credits, a young Margaret can be seen playing the piano at her concert in King's Hall. See more »
When you see vagrants sleeping rough in doorways it is grimly fascinating to wonder how they got there. Was it a gradual descent due to drink or drugs? Or was it an 'explosive decompression' – an event so dramatic it capsized an otherwise stable existence? In a gripping pre-title sequence, it is the latter that sets up the back-story for Miss Shepherd – the titular "Lady in the Van" played by the marvelous Dame Maggie Smith.
Based on a "mostly true" story, Miss Shepherd lives in an old Bedford van progressing from unwelcome parking space to unwelcome parking space in the well-to-do Gloucester Crescent in Camden (a street that strangely the Google Streetview car has never ventured down!).
This introduces us to a selection of the local residents, including – bizarrely – the wife of composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams (Frances de la Tour). The wily Miss Shepherd can however spot a soft touch from miles away and latches onto the newest resident, famous playwright Alan Bennett played (in multiple concurrent forms) by Alex Jennings (doing a fine impersonation). When yellow-lines necessitate action, Miss Shepherd wheedles her van onto his driveway for "three months": three months that turns into 15 years.
I was in two minds from the trailer as to whether I wanted to see this film or not, and I'm so pleased that I did. What stands out, and what makes it so enjoyable, is the whip-smart and intelligent script by Bennett, based on his memoirs. The use of two Bennetts – one 'doing the writing' and one 'doing the living' – could be considered contrived, but allows the frustrations and inner demons (concerning his ailing mother 'up north') to be given a witty and articulate voice.
Despite getting progressively typecast as a vaguely batty old woman, Dame Maggie excels as the troubled Miss Shepherd – it is difficult to imagine many other actresses being able to pull off this larger than life role any better. When pathos is required (e.g. "Why did you choose to live like this?"; "I didn't choose I was chosen") she delivers it in heart breaking fashion. But her more comic pronouncements, such as the one about the number of "young men" visiting Bennett's house at "every hour of the day and night" obviously being "communists", were hilarious. What appears on the surface to be a mildly humorous movie turned out to have some serious belly-laughs.
Less successful in the film is the normally excellent Jim Broadbent, playing a retired copper with an unhealthy interest in the old lady. While this may have been a true part of the story, it really didn't come across very satisfactorily, and the scenes seem brash and out of kilter with the mood of the rest of the film.
A selection of cameos in the film include Dominic Cooper ("Captain America", "Mamma Mia") and (proving how long this film has been in the can) the now US celebrity presenter James Corden.
The slightly surreal ending of the film, set in a graveyard, might not be to everyone's taste, but I personally enjoyed it and it added to the kookiness of what turned out to be a pretty kooky film.
The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner. Although having a few notable movies to his credit ("The Madness of King George", "The History Boys"), he is better known as a regular director for National Theatre productions in London, and the film does have something of a 'stagy' feel about it. But as an example of a quintessential British film, based on a 'true' subject that seems barely credible, it makes for a heart-warming and highly entertaining trip to the movies. And in this week of the dreadful events in Paris, we could all do with that. Recommended.
(Please visit bob-the-movie-man.com for the graphical version of this review. Thanks).
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