I’m sorry but I have this aversion to Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett‘s The Lady In The Van (TriStar Pictures). I know that my respect for Hytner, Bennett and Maggie Smith, who plays the title role, requires that I catch it when it plays at the Toronto Film Festival. But I really don’t want to hang with a homeless lady who lives in a van outside a playwright’s (i.e., Bennett’s) London home for 15 years. Only in plays or films are homeless people semi-endearing; the ones I’ve run into have all been an obnoxious pain of one kind or another, and you really want to spare yourself the aroma if at all possible.
I recognize the game that The Lady In The Van is playing. It’s testing the viewer’s compassion. If you wind up feeling some measure of affection for Miss Shepherd, you’re a decent person, and if you find her tedious or repellent then you’re a shit. Can I just call myself a shit right now and spare myself from watching it?
The film is based on Bennett’s 1999 West End play, which Hytner also directed. Here’s the book version.
The Lady in the Van “is a completely true story,” it says here. “In the 1970s and ’80s outside Alan Bennett’s own house in Camden an old lady (Miss Shepherd) lived in a van in the street. After a time she could no longer stay on the street. Amazingly, Bennett allowed her to move her van into his garden and there she remained until she died.”
The Lady in the Van “is about the playwright’s divided life, for which all real experience is grist for the writerly mill. It’s about living gay and closeted in suburbia (the suburbs of London) in an age when coming out could get you arrested. It’s about coming to terms with your own mum, about having bores for neighbors, who don’t know when to leave you alone.
“It’s about a disturbed woman’s mania and grief, and becoming friends of a sort with her — at least, a concerned neighbor — though she was chronically ungrateful and encroaching, but when her health fails after she has driven him near mad with her impossible demands for years, he doesn’t want her to change, he wants her to stay like she is, mad but indomitable to the end. Pick as many from the list above as you want and that’s what The Lady in the Van is about.
“It’s based on actual events. In 1974, a woman who lived in her van pulled it up Alan Bennett’s driveway. She was only supposed to stay for a few days while she decided where to move next, but she ended up staying for fifteen years and was both a demanding tenant — can you be a tenant if you never pay rent? — and clearly insane. She also stinks. Continence is arguably a problem with her and her van has no toilet. Bennett wrote about his struggles with the mad Miss Shepherd, first in memoir form and then as a play. Maggie Smith played her on-stage in London.”