She’s ungrateful. She’s argumentative and impossible. Her hair is matted and grey, her clothes torn and her rotten odor lingers wherever she goes.
She is the last person you’d want as a neighbor, but she needs somewhere to park the rundown van she lives in. Miss Shepard is homeless.
“The Lady in the Van, ”a film directed by Nicholas Hytner and based off of the true story of writer Alan Bennett, is unexpected and heartwarming.
This slice-of-life film follows the life of Alan Bennet, a plain man and struggling writer living in a suburban neighborhood in London. Upon moving into the neighborhood, Bennet meets Miss Shepard, a grumpy, old, homeless woman living out of a rundown van on the streets of the neighborhood. Although the neighbors accommodate Miss Shepard as best as she will let them, new parking regulations threaten to force her and her van out of the neighborhood. That is until Alan Bennet invites Miss Shepard to park her makeshift home in his driveway for a few months until she can find somewhere else to stay. This three-month arrangement turns into a 15-year drama between Bennet and Miss Shepard as Bennet slowly uncovers the truth behind Miss Shepard’s past.
The most interesting thing behind this film isn’t the plot. The story isn’t suspenseful or dramatic, nor is there much surprise in what occurs in the story. It’s the characters of the story that really draw you in, most noticeably Miss Shepard. The realism of Miss Shepard is unprecedented. She isn’t kind or charming. In fact, despite her misfortunes, she’s almost difficult to feel sorry for. There is obvious mental illness in her personality that is rarely portrayed in film. However, there is a certain lure to this quirky, old woman that is almost comedic and lovable. There’s also so many layers of mystery about her that its impossible not to want to stay and find out why this woman is the way that she is.
Bennet’s character is also fascinating. He’s a plain, simple British man without much flavor to his life but with plenty of wit and sarcasm. Often, Bennet is seen arguing with himself. He is portrayed as two different minds or characters in the story: a Bennet that is trying to live his life and a Bennet who is trying to find subjects to write. The two Bennets mingle, constantly arguing with each other about his decisions. It relays the internal conflict that Bennet faces everyday in an entertaining manner.
The relationship between these two characters creates an interesting dynamic and unique bond. Miss Shepard never shows gratitude toward Bennet. Often, she holds an attitude that she’s parked in Bennet’s driveway for his convenience, not her own. However, underneath it all, Miss Shepard looks to Bennet as her protector. Despite his obvious frustrations with his driveway neighbor, Bennet seems to find purpose in caring for Miss Shepard. He obviously cares for her and is genuinely interested in the past she is so eager to hide.
Without the phenomenal acting of this film, the characters would not be as believable as they are. Maggie Smith, the same actress that plays professor McGonagall in the “Harry Potter” series, does a remarkable job playing the role of Miss Shepard. Her actions, movement and eyes convey more than any amount of script ever could. Mental illness is not an easy role to portray, but Smith fills the role perfectly. Alex Jennings, an actor I personally had never heard of, surprised me with his acting as well. He fits the bill of the awkward and plain but lovable British writer remarkably. The witty and sarcastic dialogue roles off of his tongue like it’s his own words, and his complicated concern for Miss Shepard feels extremely natural.
Overall, “The Lady in the Van” is beautifully composed. The whimsical music and warm cinematography compliments the storyline. The mystery behind this strange woman draws you in and makes you stay until the very end. This story will warm your heart, make you laugh and force you to think about the lives of those you see on the streets everyday.