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    Maggie Smith Plays Irascible Homeless Woman in The Lady in the Van Film Gary M.

    GaryKramerbyRyanBrandenbergGay playwright Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, opening January 22, recounts his experiences with the homeless woman who lived in his driveway starting back in the mid-1970s. The “mostly true” story, which has been a radio play, a memoir, and a stage play, has now become an oddly touching film directed by out director Nicholas Hytner, who also helmed the stage and screen versions of Bennett’s hit, The History Boys.

    Bennett (Alex Jennings) is settling into 23 Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, London, when he “meets” the street’s most notable resident, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith). She is an irascible homeless woman who parks her van in front of various houses, much to the chagrin of everyone in the neighborhood. When Bennett decides to do a good turn for Miss Shepherd, and provide her with off-street parking in his driveway, she ends up staying there for 15 years.

    The relationship that forms between the timid Bennett and the disputatious Miss Shepherd forms the heart of The Lady in the Van, which is as much about the bond between the characters, as it is about finding one’s purpose in life, as well as one’s humanity.

    Bennett’s plays, at that time in his career, mainly featured his mother. In the film, the writer literally debates with himself—in a clunky device that has Jennings in a double role as “himself” and “writer”—about using his squatter as possible subject matter. He draws uneasy comparisons between his Mam (Gwen Taylor) and the Lady in the Van, while also noting, with irony and perhaps some regret, that old ladies have become his “niche” as a writer.


    The self-reflexive bits in the film—Bennett himself makes an appearance in the end, and there are cameos from almost the entire cast of The History Boys—are cute, but a bit distracting. The overarching idea that the forceful Miss Shepherd prompts the fussy pushover Bennett to find himself (as well as an eventual partner, rather than a bunch of hunky one-night stands) seems to be both too subtle and too obvious at the same time. It’s as if Bennett seems wary of giving too much credit to this woman he thinks owes him one when, in fact, his favor to her improved both of their lives.

    Miss Shepherd is certainly a cantankerous old woman, and not someone to say “Thank you” after using—and befouling—Bennett’s toilet. She stares with absolute contempt at a neighbor who stops and helps her open a troublesome jar. Yet what Bennett gets at with the character of Miss Shepherd, who is—as many people in the film point out—quite a character, is that she absolves the conscience of the middle-class folks around her, who feel guilty that they could end up like her. It’s a wry observation about class that echoes throughout The Lady in the Van.

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    Another point about the title character—which many people in the film also point out—is that she has a distinctive odor. This may be the source of amusement with some comic one-liners directed at her pungency, but it also provide a source of frustration for Bennett, who is seen stepping in and/or removing Miss Shepherd’s feces throughout the film. Audiences will no doubt find the smelliness and overall messiness palpable.

    Yet Miss Shepherd is not meant to be either a comic or tragic character, even if she is a symbol. She is a devoutly religious, extremely private person who often speaks the truth—as evidenced by her seemingly preposterous claim that she fended off a boa constrictor in the street, only to have the very snake turn up in a neighbor’s garden. She also, as is revealed over the course of the film, speaks French, was a novitiate, and plays the piano. As Bennett learns more about the Lady in the Van, he finds himself caring for her emotionally. However, he insists to Miss Shepherd’s social worker that he does not care for her.

    Whether viewers care about Miss Shepherd and/or Mr. Bennett will determine how they feel about The Lady in the Van. The film is certainly engaging whenever Maggie Smith is on screen, albeit in a role far removed from Dowager Countess of Grantham of Downton Abbey. Smith here is vulnerable, eccentric, and a very defensive woman who has few pleasures in life. She is obstinate, obstreperous and offensive. But Smith makes her both human, and sympathetic.

    In contrast, as Bennett, Alex Jennings does his best as a “straight man” to the comic Miss Shepherd, such as when she makes a pointed observation about the various men who come in and out of his house late at night, calling him a “Communist,” perhaps her code word for “homosexual.”

    The Lady in the Van may be like its title character, who is more repellent than charming. But for those who get to know and appreciate her, the film is mostly satisfying.

    © 2016 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.”