Let me preface this review by stating that the British do make quirky movies. You can put The Lady in the Van into the very quirky category. Believe it or not, it’s a true story that had been told previously in a book form and on stage. Alan Bennett, the author, tells of his relationship with the homeless (except for her van) Mary Shepherd. Wonderful and talented Maggie Smith has played this role both on stage and film.
The story centers around an elderly woman who drives a dilapidated van. She favors Alan’s neighborhood and moves the van from house to house early in her arrival. The neighbors tolerate her presence and attempt to be kind, offering her food and the like, but she’s undoubtedly the most cantankerous old lady you’ll meet.
Alan is a bit of an oddball himself in this story. He’s a playwright by trade, and you see him much of the time writing about this fifteen-year experience with Mary (or maybe it’s Margaret – nobody is sure). In his own oddball way, he has a double of himself in the storyline – the one who lives life – the other who writes about life. Alan is also dealing with his aging mother as the story unfolds.
Mary Shepherd is an interesting character herself, having lived in her youth as a gifted pianist. Twice she attempts to become a nun but the church doesn’t believe she’s nun material. When an accident happens in her van years before, she is plagued with the belief that she had killed someone. The guilt sends her down a spiral hole of despair from which she never recovers.
Lady in a Van is an interesting character study, set in a very small portion of London with occasional visits elsewhere. There is plenty of screen time with her van that eventually ends up parked in Alan’s driveway for the period of fifteen years. Maggie Smith’s costumes consist of filthy clothing and a pigsty of a location, but she shines as usual with her talent. You may, however, find the role a bit shocking and beneath her abilities from the grand Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey to a grungy, grumpy, and stinky old lady. However, since Maggie has owned this role in the past on stage, I dare say she was the only one to do it justice on film.
In the end, it’s the story of where life can take an individual. As an elderly woman, she appears to have no more worth than the rags she wears. Nevertheless, underneath all the filth is a woman who was once revered and applauded.