The Lady in the Van

Downton Abbey gem Maggie Smith shines in this film, which is based on a true story. She plays an elderly woman who lives in her van, every so often seeking out a new spot in Camden Town, London, to park. An up-and-coming neighborhood with up-and-coming neighbors, the locals have mixed feelings about her presence.

Single playwright Alan Bennett allows her to park in his driveway temporarily. He is not interested in any attachments; he is remote in his relationships. An unusual narrative technique has two versions of Alan Bennett living in the house—one who is always at the desk writing about his life, and the other who is supposed to be actually living his life. The trouble is, he doesn't have much of a life. He holds his mother at a distance, and on a few occasions it is made clear that a man stayed the night with no intention of a real connection.

However, he can’t keep Mrs. Shepherd at a distance.

Rather than treat her as an object of pity or as a kindly woman who has had a difficult time of it, the movie portrays Mrs. Shepherd as a difficult, complicated person. A gifted pianist, her playing was silenced by her superiors when she was a novice nun. Later in life she did something she regrets terribly, and she is still seeking forgiveness from God.


Bennett accepts her difficult nature. At one point, as he cleans an unsavory mess from his shoe, he debates whether the written version of this story would be too gritty. He decides that caring for people is a gritty job (though he uses slightly more colorful language to convey that message). Caring is messy, it can be unpleasant, and it gets to the very basic needs and difficulties of life. He doesn't want to care, but he slowly opens up to the possibility of deeper relationships.

Unhurried, humorous, and exceedingly human, the movie addresses the reasons people are—or are not—kind to those in Mrs. Shepherd’s situation, allowing for the complexity of those responses too.

In the end, the movie offers a quirky, Monty Python-esque merging of Bennett’s unbelief and Mrs. Shepherd’s redemption of sorts. It would be a good film for generating discussion. On disc now. (Sony)

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