The Lady In The Van

British Cinema at its finest

This film is so warm, kind-hearted and endearing. Whilst on the surface it looks to be a meek and mild comedy about a nutty old lady it is so much more than that. It’s full of witty observations about society – the  lens is pointed firmly at liberals who have earned enough to become middle class yet feel a degree of guilt about their new-found  wealth – and how we do/don’t look after each other. Maggie Smith as the eponymous ‘Lady’ is magnificent,  bringing a richness and poignancy to a fiercely opinionated powerhouse of a figure. Should this be 80-year old Smith’s last leading role, it is one to be proud of. Her performance in this ‘Mostly True Story’ both perverse and profound in equal measure.

In the 1970s playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moved into an affluent street in Camden. He swiftly became acquainted with his neighbours and the nomadic interloper Ms Shephard (Maggie Smith) known by many as the infamous ‘Ms Camden’. Ms Shepard, as Alan insists on calling her, lives in a van. The neighbours do not know why she lives in the van, or even who she is. Is she called Mary or Margret. What they do know is that she is homeless and prone to dictatorial ravings. Due to a mixture of guilt and territorial conviction they protest little (at least to her face)  as she drives around and parks up where ever she fancies. However, after council and double yellow line interference, she can no longer continuing temporarily pitching up where she choses. Loathe to offer too much help to the cantankerous old woman Alan lets her use his drive temporarily to park her Van. 15 years pass, with an often-reluctant Alan slowly-forming a bond with Ms Shepard. As time passes and takes its toll on Ms Shepard Alan begins to learn of the past that continues to consume her. 

This is the type of story that could only be true, it would be nigh-on impossible to create a character like Ms Shepard. The majority of her views were left in the dark ages and the way she treats those who try to help her is often despicable. And yet, when personified by Dame Maggie Smith, she is made almost loveable. Her hidden pain and turmoil often explaining some of her brusque character traits. Jennings is superb as her friend and foil, presenting the conflicted feelings Bennett himself had towards helping the formidable Shepard. The supporting cast are also extraordinary: Frances De La Tour, Jim Broadbent and Claire Foy to name just three, all bring various degrees of support to the grande dame of squalor that is Ms Shepard. The slow and tragic realization that Ms Shepard was more sinned against than a sinner is heart-breaking yet handled with such caution and care.

Considering the topic matter this film is ultimately uplifting, almost joyful in its exploration of what draws people to care and look out for one another.

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