The true story of Alan Benett and Miss Shepherd, who temporarily parked her van in his driveway and ended up staying for 15 years, is not a new one; in 1989 Bennett released a short book, before a play with the same name was produced in 1999. However, despite numerous adaptations in a variety of formats, Nicholas Hytner’s 2015 film reveals the true, authorised tale using the original street and house where the story unfolded. This authenticity is made even more credible as the house is still owned by the now well-known, Alan Bennett, and so the audience can witness the true setting in all its glory.
It is humurous, if not odd, that such an ungrateful, bigoted, old lady, who just so happens to reek of onions and live in the belly of a broken down van, resides in Gloucester Crescent, an upcoming, wealthy area of London. The absurd yet true story tells the tale of how two very different – yet both lonely in their own sense – characters build an unfriendly, unbreakable relationship where Bennett feels inclined to do the miserable old woman’s shopping and clean up her shit.
I went to watch this with my Mom, deliberately considering a genre that might appeal to a more older generation than myself. In a presumptive manner, I assured her the cinema would be relatively empty and was bragging about how I’d secure us the best seats, and therefore I was mildly surprised when I struggled to get a seat at all! The screen was full of elderly people – who really do leave the house from time to time, thank you very much, Hayley – rustling their sweet packets and sipping on their cups of tea. I was definitely right about one thing though: it 100% resonates with the older generation (I feel like I’m doing my Mom down here. Please note, she’s only 54).
The tale is a cosy one, perfect for snuggling under a blanket to on a wet, Sunday afternoon with a mug of hot chocolate and a fire crackling in the hearth. I sound about 70 but as proven, this film removes any blurred, generational lines.
Miss Shepherd, played by the incredible Maggie Smith, is both a comic and tragic figure. She’s ferocious and cantankerous, yet strangely likeable. Despite the residents’ constant moaning and enthusiasm to see the back of her, deep down everyone tolerates her. It’s as though she’s some eccentric attraction, offering everyone on the road a form of entertainment.
The neighbours are liberal-minded, educated, wealthy individuals who put up with her more to show how tolerant they are rather than for any genuine concern to her health. She is a shrewd woman and takes advantage of their acceptance of her (regardless of their reasons), punishing their kindness with vicious remarks and constant complaints.
The woman is practically a stranger living quite literally on Bennett’s doorstep. She takes advantage of him too by cleverly – and comically – planting seeds in his head which lead to bigger suggestions, such as moving her van onto his drive, despite her never showing any sign of appreciation or admitting his help is to her benefit.
Her secretive, mysterious past, which seems to contradict her current lifestyle, creates an enigmatic persona. Her Bedford van, emitting a stench of onions and damp newspaper – the ‘essence of poverty’ as Bennett describes – is where she spends pretty much all of the final 20 years of her life. But the audience are offered snippets of information eluding to a much grander lifestyle involving strict religion, a great education and an exceptional musical talent. Her origins are uncertain and blurry and it’s shocking that it isn’t until after her death that the real-life Bennett fully knows who was living under his bedroom window (although this is modified slightly in the film with him taking it upon himself to find out just before her death – something he is probably disappointed he didn’t do in reality).
The biggest mystery surrounding her involves a much darker element; the ominous opening scene of a blood splattered windscreen and a fresh faced Miss Shepherd manages to keep the viewer’s interest through a rather plotless storyline. This dark secret could explain why she so readily detaches herself from human emotion throughout the film, hiding the guilt of her past.
Miss Shepherd could be described as a tragic hero as her crime is her downfall. She allows her guilt to eat away at her; the nuns shun her and squash the music in her; she’s been unrightly bribed by a policeman for unfortunate, accidental manslaughter for which she never forgives herself; a writer (Bennett) uses her as a muse, and every bit of pleasure or education she had has been taken away from her. It’s no shock really that she’s a vicious and bitter old woman.
The once talented and educated individual does show signs of her former, softer self though at times as she constantly asks after Bennett’s sick mother.
It’s difficult to make a film about an old woman living in a scabby van particularly interesting but all credit goes to Maggie Smith who has proven she can excel in any role. Her incredible wit ensures audiences are always entertained and her role in The Lady in the Van is no exception.
Even as a homeless, distinctly unclean woman, Smith upholds a certain elegance.
It occurred to me that it was Smith’s name heavily featuring in the adaptation that had drawn in the crowds when I watched the film at the cinema. Who wouldn’t be intrigued to watch someone who can play one of the richest ladies in the country in Downton Abbey and then equally excel in the role of a dirty, old woman.
Alan Jennings who plays Bennett, captures the boring, struggling, northern writer perfectly.
At first, it seems as though Bennett’s kind nature is the reason behind his involvement in Miss Shepherd’s troubles – which is partly true despite how much he refuses to admit it – but the root of his interest is down to her being an intriguing character who he can feed off for ‘raw material’.
The real Bennett explored the relationship between writer and muse in his original play and Hytner continues this theme in the film. The ‘film’ Bennett notes: ‘you don’t have to put yourself in your writing, you write to find yourself’.
Throughout the film, Bennett is constantly trying to improve his writing and discover and secure his true style. Most writers are thought to lead creative, exciting lives but his is the epitome of drab as he is surrounded by old, lonely women: Miss Shepherd and his mother. His writing involves old women suffering with loneliness while he ironically grows older and lonelier.
The theatrical device of the twin Bennetts – almost like the angel and devil on his shoulders – represent ‘the self who does the living’ (a much kinder guy who’s more inclined to help his neighbours because of his compassionate side) and ‘the self who does the writing’ (a more harsher being who takes a hard lined approach and is eager to use Miss Shepherd as a muse).
His private life is comically glimpsed at with his various late-night rendezvouses with various men – something Miss Shepherd is oblivious of in her dingy van.
Hytner offers a brilliant insight into old age and illness. As well as how best to react to the various forms loneliness takes. He delivers a message of how guilt can consume an individual, the importance of human interaction and atonement.
The film is massively lacking in special effects, intense action and glamour or glitz, yet it’s simple charm captivates the audience until the end.
As the plot progresses, the essence of life and art are explored with Bennett’s sharp observations being accentuated slightly and crafted into art. His willingness to observe rather than participate is evident right until the end as he finally decides to put pen to paper and outline his relationship with his eccentric acquaintance.