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.
There are a couple of historical mistakes which the filmmakers perhaps missed, and which show the hazard of filming in today's environment. In one of the early street scenes, circa 1974, Miss Shepherd is seen walking away from a crossroads. The traffic signals shown there are a modern design, not introduced until 1997. In another scene where she is seen with Alan Bennett near the gates of the convent, the block of flats in the background have modern double-glazing. In the 1970s, this would either have been single-glazed with wood frames or light aluminium. 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 »
"Lady in the Van" from 2015 is the "mostly" true story of playwright Alan Bennett's relationship with a woman who lived in various vans parked in his driveway for fifteen years. Bennett here is played by Alex Jennings, and the lady, Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith.
Miss Shepherd, who smells awful from not bathing, lives in a crowded van and moves it from place to place, staying until she's thrown out or until she hears music. When she's told to move or do something else, she yells, as only Maggie Smith can do, "I'm a sick woman! Dying possibly!" Alan finds it impossible to break from her, though he tries. She prays very fervently and one time tells him that she spoke to the Virgin Mary at the post office. When he asks if the van is insured, she says she doesn't need it, she's insured in heaven. "So what happens if you have an accident?" Alan asks. "Who pays? The Pope?"
Alan is gay, though his friends are always trying to fix him up with a woman. One day Miss Shepherd says, "All those people who come and go in the dark, I know who they are." "Oh, Jesus," he says under his breath. "They're Communists!" she hisses. "Otherwise they wouldn't come and go in the dark."
Miss Shepherd is a woman of mystery - Alan finally learns that she studied piano, speaks fluent French, and was a nun. She also at times is seen going to someone's house in the dead of night. A man opens the door and comes outside. And someone stops by her van from time to time, and she gives him money.
In the end, we learn who these people are, her story of the convent, the history of her piano-playing, why she prays all the time, and who the men are.
Alex Jennings is perfect as Bennett (who appears at the end of the movie). He has his voice down pat, and in the film, there are two Alans - the writer Alan and the observer Alan, who talk with one another throughout the film. It's Alan who lives in the real world who encourages the writer Alan to be helpful to Miss Shepherd.
I am so privileged to have seen Maggie Smith in "Lettice and Lovage," one of my greatest evenings in the theater, where I laughed until I cried. At the end of that play, she gets on the phone and does a serious, touching monologue. She does the same here. Instead of the crazy homeless lady with the plastic bags we see and laugh at and wonder about during the play, she does a monologue that tells us who she is, and about her pain, heartbreak, and disappointments. "Why did you choose to be homeless?" Alan asks. "I didn't choose," she insists. "It was chosen for me."
A wonderful film about an uptight, cold man and a disturbed religious bag lady - you won't soon forget it.
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