The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Alan Bennett's strained friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her temporarily to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home. She stayed there for 15 years. As the story develops Bennett learns that Miss Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild (died 1989), a former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot. She had played Chopin in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.
At one point in the film, Maggie Smith's character Miss Shepherd asks Alan to get her sherbet lemons at the grocery store. In the Harry Potter universe, "sherbet lemon" is one of the passwords for Professor Dumbledore's office. Smith played Professor Minerva McGonagall in the series and had to utter the phrase to allow Harry Potter into Dumbledore's office. See more »
There is a cable TV box on the outside of Bennett's House, there was no cable TV - certainly not in 1973. See more »
The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odor suggesting the inside of someone's ear. Dank clothes are there, too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw. Plus, what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper. Miss Shepherd's multi-flavored aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley's Lavender always a favorite. And currently it is this genteel fragrance that dominates the second subject, ...
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During the first part of the credits, a young Margaret can be seen playing the piano at her concert in King's Hall. See more »
The film begins with our protagonist Miss Shepherd (Smith) driving through the English countryside hoping to avoid a policeman. There is blood splattered against her cracked windshield and a flustered look on Shepherd's face. We then meet our narrator Alan Bennett (Jennings) a playwright who has just moved to the quiet middle-class neighborhood of Camden. He is of two minds; one who writes fastidiously while the other takes care of the daily functions of his life. The doppelgangers argue about the trajectory of his work, both deciding he lacks the excitement of Hemingway and the complexities of Proust. Then Miss Shepherd moves into the neighborhood, setting her dilapidated van along the street to the horror of Camden's well-to-do residents.
Dame Maggie Smith has had a long and illustrious career to be sure. A consistently tremendous force on the stage and screen, Smith has been in show-business since the 1950's and not once has she faltered with an abysmal performance. The Lady in the Van is certainly no exception. She takes on the role she first popularized on the stage play with gusto relishing in the tiniest little moments that breathe life into Shepherd. So popular was her portrayal on stage that she was nominated for Best Actress at the Olivier Awards and this year she was similarly nominated for a Golden Globe.
Alas The Lady in the Van is not simply about Shepherd and her cantankerous run-ins with neighbors, social workers and Alan. Alan's struggle to come to terms with his sickly mother, his circumspect sexuality and his writing, at one point putting on a monologue on London's West End which goes badly. Alex Jennings tries hard to make his duel role stick but his periodic subplots feel airy, lack conflict and pad time in between Smith's charming homeless-woman stunts and his own droll voice-over narration. He's not a real character or at least one we really care about. He's simply the vessel in which the story carries itself while Smith is the showcase.
While it's easy to see how this film's source material is stage- driven, director Nicholas Hytner does a fine job elevating the story in a more cinematic way. He used his eye to similar aplomb in The Madness of King George (1994) which delved into similar themes albeit in a much grander way. We get a picturesque view of springtime Camden with all the trappings of upper-middle class opulence. In such an environment, Shepherds garish van sticks out like a sore thumb jabbing at the neighbors sensibilities. Despite the main conflict surrounding what the neighborhood should to with their local reprobate, none of them are treated as outright monsters. The film takes place within a 15-year time span thus what eventually becomes a nuisance morphs into a local mainstay.
There's one piece of The Lady in the Van puzzle that must be addressed and that is the outstanding score by five time Oscar nominee George Fenton. His original music is grand and bittersweet which perfectly matches the emotional core of the film. He borrows some insightful leitmotifs from Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky while also presenting some specific pieces by Schubert and Chopin. One particular piece; an impromptu by Schubert does such a good job portraying the sadness and sense of guilt of Miss Shepherd, that it ranks up there with the Chopin ballad scene in The Pianist (2002) as best example of classical music translating character emotion.
Yet in spite of some stellar music, one showstopping performance on the part of Maggie Smith and a kindly message about transience, The Lady in the Van can't help but feel almost too sweet. It's a movie that will put a warm smile on your face and keep it there but it won't stick with you long after you've left the theater. That's not altogether a bad thing though; if you're craving for some wholesome entertainment sure to warm your heart, The Lady in the Van is certainly worth your time.
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