Whenever Dame Maggie Smith takes on a role, regardless of whether it is 5 minutes of screen time or 25 she proves there are no small parts, only small actors. In The Lady in the Van, Smith’s screen time is considerable and she inhabits every inch of the true-to-life woman Mary Shepherd in a depiction which she has chiseled to perfection over time and through various entertainment genres.
The divine Miss Shepherd is an iconoclastic elderly woman with whom writer Alan Bennett became acquainted in the early 1970s. Their acquaintance blossomed into an unusual relationship with confabulating encounters. Bennett noted these in a diary, which he configured into a book, stage play, radio play, and now a film starring Smith, the only actress that Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner ever deemed right for the part. Deepened characterizations, wider themes, and clever tropes are the latest iteration’s spun gold, with Smith as the chief artisan weaving the story of how one woman’s choices effected an incredible life’s journey.
Smith’s depiction of Miss Mary Shepherd has been ripened to fullness, and the fruit is delicious. When you finish something sumptuous, memories of your enjoyment linger. So it is with this film, whose creators’ teamwork satisfies on every level. It is filled with luscious items: Hytner’s fine points of symbolic detail, production design, pointed music, London settings, and ironies throughout, including his casting choices (if you see his film The History Boys you will understand). Bennett’s brilliant turns of phrase channeling Miss Shepherd with Smith’s bullseye delivery and crackling, droll, humor (though Bennett claims Miss Shepherd never meant to be funny), are a blast of fresh air. Indeed, Bennett’s encapsulation of Shepherd’s character is a guide to aging with scope, vitality, charm and just enough wily insanity to manipulate others to “put up with you,” while they learn that patience has its own virtuous learning curve.
Smith’s Shepherd is the quintessential rambunctious and imperious curmudgeon times two, audacious, outrageous and commandeering. While staying in her dilapidated van, she hijacks Bennett’s neighbors’ good will and charitable patience for a time, sharpening her manipulative skills and supercilious attitude. When these who live on the upper part of the street aver, she moves down the block and arrives at Bennett’s place. There she lives in the increasingly filthy, unkempt van interior for 15 years parked in Bennett’s (a fine Alex Jennings) driveway.
This “mostly” true account hums with all the human emotions at once, as it teaches the startling revelations about what fear does to people. Out of desperation, fear can close down whole swaths of a once functioning personality. Yet, fear, as Bennett and Hytner poignantly show, is a survival mechanism that also can prompt one to forge incredible and unlikely relationships. And those may allow rays of hope and ingenuity to penetrate the darkness and bring light.
How these shades of dark and light, fear, recalcitrance, determination and persistence battled within Margaret Fairchild, former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot, and transformed her into Mary Shepherd is the tragi-comic mystery that Bennett, Hytner and Smith’s marvelous endeavors compassionately place before us. We cannot help but sift the elements in wonder. We empathize with Smith’s and Bennett’s portrayal and appreciate the many themes that this story holds for us today about autonomy and aging, human dignity, recovering from trauma, the long work of emotional healing, reconciliation and forgiveness of self, the moral imperative to be a good neighbor, and helping another confront the isolating approach of death.
The vibrant synergy among Bennett, Hytner and Smith fuels the spiral and momentum of revelations about Miss Shepherd. Hytner and Bennett initially use flashback to reveal how Shepherd chooses to consign the van as her designated mobile home in which she must live and be on the move. The process that lands Shepherd in North London slowly migrating down Gloucester Crescent to end up in front of Bennett’s lovely brick house is rife with resident recriminations and acts of charity prompted by guilt at the recognizable gap in personal economies between this obviously homeless itinerant and the pleasant middle upper class neighborhood she has chosen to grace with her unsightly van and unseemly presence.
By the time she rolls along the curve to Bennett’s house, he is familiar with her surprising shenanigans and purpose and is amused, his curiosity piqued, his emotions stirred to pity-up to a point. He has an aging mother who he likens her to, though his eventual relationship with both hovers between exasperation, frustration and resignation.
Moved to concern and protectiveness when he notes the potential for police action against her and sees bullies and predatory types circling, Bennett invites her to park her decrepit van in his driveway near his garden. In typical Shepherd fashion, she never thanks him for his graciousness. Indeed, she beggars him, reverses the tables and assumes an elder privilege and rights, even to the occasional use of his toilet when the pressing need threatens an avalanche. After she vacates his facilities and home, we appreciate how Bennett scrubs furiously everywhere she has traipsed and sprays freshner to dissipate her noisome presence especially in the bathroom. It would seem Miss Shepherd’s personal hygiene is in a state of animated suspension.
Not to become too obligated to Bennett which would put her under his power, Shepherd mostly fills plastic bags with her soilings and trash and dumps them in Bennett’s garbage cans, leaving the perplexing odoriferous pickup for London’s sanitation crew. But sometimes Bennett handles the plastic bags and though he is annoyed, shocked and dismayed at various points along her declining journey through the 15 years in his driveway, he cannot bring himself to evict her.
Bennett offered his driveway assuming it was only for a short period, until she could get herself rolling to the bottom of the street. Miss Shepherd senses with intuitive radar that something in his soul is accessible, caused by his guilt about his mother or his desire to engage humanity. For the film Bennett and Hytner have added the humorous contrivance of splitting Bennett into two people, the observer/writer and the man of action. These opposing Alans are in constant debate with each other about Miss Shepherd and the direction of Bennett’s “life.” The rationalizations the writer/observer gives to the man of action are sardonic and intensify when Shepherd manipulates and perplexes him, ignores/refuses censure, help or guidance. The interactions between Bennett and Miss Shepherd impact the intentions between the Alans; this is an extremely clever add-on in the film that sneaks in vital themes about humanity and the spiritual graces of kindness, patience and goodness.
The parallel between Shepherd and Bennett’s mother is acute. Alan the writer realizes shamefacedly that he cannot deal adequately with either to satisfy Alan, man of action. He also is painfully aware as the years progress of the elderly women’s downhill slide: his mother into senility/dementia, Miss Shepherd into physical decline and complete neediness which she is loath to acknowledge. Both require long term care: his mother in a nursing home, Miss Shepherd in her rancid van. He cannot take care of his mother. As best he can, he watches over Shepherd. And when her gnarly defense mechanism against compassion is turned off, he assists her. The pathos and irony are heart-breaking: it is what it is, old age. Sooner or later we all will get there, perhaps.
During the transposition of 15 years, Bennett expiates whatever was troubling him in his soul that Shepherd sensed and he learns love and patience. By the time Miss Shepherd leaves him to continue her journey toward more expansive horizons than Gloucester Crescent, North London, he has found love with another and has become one Alan, whole and complete.
Hytner and Bennett use contrast for humor, all based on reality. Bennett is meticulous about his home and person. Shepherd is the epitome of an elder ragamuffin. She chooses to live in dingy, unkempt squalor and reeking living quarters. But this van is her autonomous pleasure dome. There she can make all of her own decisions and do things her way however, horrific this may appear to others. Bennett respects her right to this self-determination, and in this, he is a champion of human dignity. As a result these two unlikely individuals form an indelible, ineffable bond for all time. We appreciate what Bennett does for her. Despite the vicissitudes, she is fun and peculiarly amazing.
In the creative powers of Hytner, Smith and Bennett the very real personal details of this diva of the yellow van and elevated dowager of dinginess remain superbly authentic and real. In an identification with Bennett, we cannot help but respect Shepherd for her resilience, and perseverance while we laugh at her pretensions. Through Smith’s portrayal, we also realize that Shepherd’s “quirky” imagination holds more hope than that of others who have far more materially than she, and who live in beautiful homes yet shudder through “quiet lives of desperation.” Smith’s portrayal is so human so that we are able to identify and probe the depths of who Miss Shepherd is and understand/empathize with the profound wounding of her battle scarred soul.
Bennett’s, Hytners, Smith’s combined efforts have created an entertaining yet heart-felt, human drama which keeps one in proverbial stitches while shaking one’s head with incredulity. The Lady in the Van opens in limited release in NYC on December 11 and in wider release on January 15.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000JJ3SCO] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=1861971222] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B015JPZKGO]