The Lady in the Van is based on a true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and the mysterious homeless woman, Mary Shepherd, who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and ended up staying there for 15 years.
This is a wondrous film, not alone for Bennett’s brilliant comic/drama screenplay, but also for the lead roles played so engagingly by Maggie Smith (Miss Shepherd) and Alex Jennings (Bennett – complete with dual voices of self and writer self). It is also a gently portrayed mystery – who is Mary Shepherd? What is her story, her past, and how did she become this eccentric old bag lady? And why can’t she bear to hear music? Beneath the frail, defiant skin and nervous energy, her fate is mastered by the act of parking her stinky, battered van outside a stranger’s house in Camden. A stranger who just happens to be Alan Bennett, a sensitive, compassionate, imaginative type (with biting wit!) who also just happens to be a brilliant playwright.
There is a poignant subtext to the film in the relationship between Bennett and his own elderly mother, mental illness being a tenuous ribbon of connection to his uneasy friendship with Miss Shepherd, fear, sadness and life lessons reflected through her contrariness. The frailty of aging and how it strips away dignity is dealt with unflinchingly, though in that most humanistic perspective of finding humour in the idiosyncrasies. Even with that most defiant trait of human nature, in the end, how helpless we become.