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Film review: The Lady in the Van

Film & TV

This is the “almost true” story of how the elderly and fiercely independent Miss Shepherd – plus her van – arrived outside playwright Alan Bennett’s house in Camden, north London, in the early 1970s.

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He offered her three months of off-street parking, mainly so that her presence in the road wouldn’t distract him from his writing – and she stayed for 15 years, until her death.

The story of their relationship, with all its complexities, was originally published in the London Review of Books in 1989. It was subsequently made into a successful play and now a film, with many layers of comedy, frustration and poignancy.

Directed sympathetically by Nicholas Hytner, with Bennett advising, the film is set in the house where the story unfolded, thus providing the authenticity of a consciously genteel (and often rainy) north London community of the time.

It is much more than the warm and mildly comic observation of life that is often associated with Bennett’s work.  There are many moments of comedy, as well as opportunities to sympathise with the plight of a man whose act of generosity seems to have been repaid with an insalubrious presence.  Yet there is far more to it, and Miss Shepherd (played with enthusiasm by the incomparable Maggie Smith, who also played her in the original stage version) has a melancholy back-story which is cleverly woven into the film without the audience being aware that Bennett himself knew nothing of it until after his guest’s death.

There are themes of isolation and the need to belong, of independence and community, of old age and the dignity that is often lost as death approaches.

Bennett is portrayed (with gentle and sometimes conflicted compassion) by Alex Jennings as two people – the one who is writing and the one who is “living” – and their conversations represent the often competing thoughts between his conscience and the practicalities.  Prominent in those conversations are his feelings about his lonely and ageing mother in Leeds who, along with her “decrepit counterpart” (Miss Shepherd), occupy most of his spare time.

The audience laughs with Bennett at Miss Shepherd’s moments of bizarre behaviour, feels for him as her malodorous presence impinges on his privacy, rails with him against the arrogance of social workers and society’s indifference to outsiders – and is glad for him when there is resolution and peace for all.

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