Dir. Nicholas Hytner. U.K. 2015

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Caring can take many forms and doesn’t always fit our pictures. It can involve reciprocal expressions of love or words of encouragement, but can also be about cleaning up after someone who has disgusting habits, being with someone who is unpleasant and unappreciative and never says thank you. It also doesn’t always make you feel good, as discovered by playwright Allan Bennett in Nicholas Hytner's film of Bennett's play and memoir The Lady in the Van. Those uncomplimentary habits belong to Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), known as Mary or Margaret, a cantankerous old woman who “temporarily” parks her van in the driveway of playwright Bennett’s (Alan Jennings) London home and ends up staying for fifteen years.

Bennett is a reserved, almost timid man, who merely tolerates Mary at first with considerable annoyance, but whose relationship with the homeless woman grows over the years to a friendship based on mutual respect. It is not easy for him, however, especially since he also must look after his elderly mother (Gwen Taylor) who has been confined to a nursing home. Living in a liberal-minded area of artists and writers, most of his neighbors feel they are doing their part by offering food and some clothes but remain isolated from Mary on a human level. Though he treats Mary with kindness, being a writer who is always on the lookout for new material, Bennett may have a few motives other than Christian charity.

A device that worked well on stage is brought to the screen as Jennings plays a double role on split screen. The roles represent two sides of Bennett’s character, one the man who is living his life, the other the writer who translates life into art and the dialogue between the two is often witty and sarcastic. Maggie Smith, the six-time Oscar nominee who previously played the role in the original stage version of Bennett’s play in 1999 and in adaptations for the radio, dominates the film and delivers another Oscar-worthy performance. Though she is ungrateful, coarse, and perhaps even borderline mentally unhinged, Miss Shepherd is still likeable and honest and we don’t want any harm to come to her when she tangles with patronizing neighbors, the police, and young hoods.

The film holds its secrets about Mary’s former life and we do not find out much of her mystery until the end. We do discover, however, that she was a novice in a Catholic convent and an exceptionally talented pianist whose performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 scattered throughout the film adds a lovely touch, though her strong feelings of “hearing” music brings back painful memories of her past. There is also a thread about an earlier incident in her life which has made her live in fear of the law, one that adds little to the narrative other than providing an opportunity for a cameo by Jim Broadbent.

One of the most endearing moments in the film is when Mary takes off on her own and, arms waving, goes flying down the street in her wheelchair, some might say recklessly. For the most part, The Lady in the Van avoids sentimentality and is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It has no deep moral message but suggests some words from Chogyam Trungpa: “When you can hold the pain of the world in your heart without losing sight of the vastness of the Great Eastern Sun, then you will be able to make a proper cup of tea.”


Howard Schumann

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