The Lady in the Van is the mostly true story of a British playwright and author Alan Bennett who lived for a time around 1974 in the well know literary community of Camden Town, London, where he became acquainted with an eccentric homeless woman living in a van outside his house on Gloucester Crescent.
The peaceful stone-walled, hedged and gated streets of this well-kept cultured community of old converted lodging homes was a popular area to live for many famous British authors, playwrights and artists of the time. Known for its quiet family atmosphere, the residence of Gloucester Crescent were not prepared and quite perturbed by an uninvited guest who took up residence on their front doorsteps one day.
The dubious guest is a smelly ill-natured elderly homeless woman living out of her van and moving from house to house as she pleased once she outstayed her welcome. Teased and bullied by neighborhood children, Miss Mary Shepherd, as she came to be known, eventually sheltered under the watchful gaze of the shy timid writer of plays Alan Bennett.
As Alan sat quietly contemplating in his cozy study writing and looking through his bay window, the foul bag lady in the van rolled into his view one day and became a permanent fixture of his daily life.
Maggie Smith, known for her role as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, plays the humorless acerbic lady in the van with biting realism and subtle vulnerability. No one would ever guess she was once a sensitive musical prodigy who became deeply suspicious of and hurt by a callous uncaring society.
The story is told from the perspective of the writer Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, who is shown in the film as two distinct personalities. One of a person who is withdrawn and immersed in his inner world of books and writing, and the other, a social being who must interact with the chaotic world and people around him.
The Lady in the Van is filmed on location in the actual street and house where Alan and Miss Shepherd lived back in the 70s and 80s. Living apart yet always there in earshot of each of other like roommates who tolerate each other, but always wondering when she will move on to the next house.
Alan never got to know Miss Shepherd’s history while she was alive as she was just a homeless person to him like so many that we encounter on a daily basis, and she was difficult to get along with. Some of us are charitable enough to give them a little change or food but most of us just try to ignore homeless people, afraid to get too close.
It was quite extraordinary that the people of Gloucester Crescent were able to tolerate her and sometimes help Miss Shepherd for as long as they did, even becoming an accepted part of the community, especially considering that the lady in the van was not a particularly kind person. In fact by all accounts she was quite cantankerous.
The Lady in the Van film however is an enjoyable good-natured and touching comedy, thanks to the way that Alan wrote about her and himself in his diaries and the humorous sensitive direction of filmmaker Nicholas Hytner.
by John Schwab