AFI Fest 2015: ‘The Lady in the Van’

According to a 2013 Allianz study, 49 percent of the 2,213 women feared they would become homeless. The so-called “Bag Lady Syndrome” is very real in the United States. Articles are written about how to avoid such a fate in venues such as Forbes, and books are written to advise women. The 2015 British drama “The Lady in the Van” is about one such lady who’s given a sense of regal despair by Maggie Smith.

Gently humorous with an air of poignancy, the film was adapted by Alan Bennett from his 1999 Olivier Award-nominated West End play by the same name and based on his book. Smith originated the role on the West End. The movie premiered a the Toronto International Film Festival in September was released in the U.K. in November. It will be released in the United States in January 2016.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George”), the movie is about how Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) made the acquaintance of the titular character and how she came to park her van in his driveway for 15 years. In the beginning, we see a young woman driving a van and fleeing an accident. That accident would result in a fearfulness and distrust that haunted the woman until her last days.

Known as Miss Mary Shepherd by the residents of the London borough of Camden, she is treated like a pesky stray dog who wanders from house to house, imposing upon the well-to-do who tolerate her as a sort of private charity case. She’s a bag lady who stores her bags in a van, usually one provided as charity. Each neighbor takes a turn, having her park in front of their home, sighing with relief as she departs for another patch of curb. Yet in Bennett, Miss Shepherd finds someone who is not a kindred spirit but a weak-willed landlord. When she in danger of losing her van, he allows her to park in his driveway for what is supposed to be a few months but ends up being 15 years.

Jennings plays two different Alan Bennetts–one is the brave and almost ruthless writer and the other is the wimpy neighbor/landlord. Miss Shepherd never meets the writer, but he’s there commenting on the other Alan and his interactions with Miss Shepherd. When Miss Shepherd dies, the two Bennetts learn that she was actually Margaret Fairchild, a gifted pianist who once played Chopin at a promenade concert. She had a brother, but he had her committed to an institution. Through flashbacks we learn about these things and Bennett provides a fanciful ending.

The flights from fact are clearly marked. There’s mention of feces and Bennett’s friendships with men. As one can imagine, having a social life or a romantic relationship with such a troublesome person at your front door can be challenging.  Bennett apparently picked up after Miss Shepherd/Fairchild as if she was a stray dog that came to stay. Because of socialized medicine, Miss Shepherd did have healthcare, although she seemed to fear it.

Maggie Smith gives her character a strong sense of determination and moments of regal indignation. Jennings gets to be both sensible and hopelessly humble and the device provides us sort of an adult, simplified version of “Inside Out,”–we are privy to the conflicting thoughts of one man acted out as if they were two.

One is left with a sadness that Miss Fairchild’s gift for music was denied and that she was so mistakenly haunted by something that wasn’t her fault.  Through his friendship with this cantankerous character, Bennett shows us one way of caring for the mentally ill and an insight into two lives.

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