Alan Bennett’s adaptation of his own memoir is a bittersweet tale of how curiousness and mild affection transform a passing interaction with a stranger into a strangely evolving, burdensome 15 year relationship. In London’s Camden district, home to artists of all sorts, the cantankerous Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) becomes a familiar sight, usually seen ensconced in her easily identifiable van which seems to hone in a location in the street and then remain dormant for months at a time. The locals are chagrined, naturally, though they’re an admirably tolerant lot; they moan and complain half-heartedly but, more compelled by the pitiful human element of Miss Shepherd’s plight, they simply put up with her moaning, insolence and crotchety demeanor.
Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) tolerates her with more conviction, even allowing the lady in the van to take refuge in his driveway when new parking regulations put an end to her hopes of eternally revolving through the streets. Bennett is torn of course and one of the film’s cleverest conceits – skillfully handed by director Nicolas Hytner – is its physical portrayal of his creative divide, in which he’s represented by both sides of the instincts within. First, there’s the version of himself who appraises from afar, the writer, the fictionalist, searching for potent material to expand upon for his own purposes. Then there’s the ‘real’ Alan Bennett, doggedly passing through his own life alongside the tiresome, mundane realities of dealing with his creative flaws, the expectations and judgment of his friends, neighbours and peers and, most confrontingly, the grim reality of Miss Shepherd’s relentless permanency in his life.
It’s a strange attachment, and one he should, for all intents and purposes, be able to sever with ease, even if with a backward glance or two of remorse. But somehow, with the burden of his aged, ailing mother to contend with and lukewarm feedback from his recent plays weighing him down, he’s simply unable to take what would be increasingly drastic measures to legally move Miss Shepherd on. And on some level, he yearns to both dignify her and understand more about her past and the validity of her ‘story’ which, through conversational snippets, is as strewn about as the remaining detritus accumulated inside the stationary vessel that is her home.
Jennings embodies Bennett with a transformative role accompanied by a befitting accent and physically attuned nuances. Smith, too, is remarkable; hers is a brave performance as the ambiguous Miss Shepherd who makes every attempt to alienate every person or child who enters her periphery. Consequently she’s almost impossible to love but a yearning to make sense of her story means there’s a lingering intrigue as to how her unique journey unfolds and the role Bennett will play in generate moments of genuine human truth from sifting through what seems like a willfully arranged barrier to ensure self-preservation.
With Hytner’s regular composer George Fenton liberally borrowing from a classical catalogue to accentuate the drama’s droll, tender and absurd ebbs and flows, The Lady in the Van (2015) comes full circle, placing the film’s very first scene in context; we’re rewarded with a more levelly framed humanising of Miss Shepherd too whilst simultaneously being spared the usual, shallow appeal to a sentimental reflex.