Title: The Lady in the Van
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, James Corden, Frances De La Tour, Dominic Cooper, Jim Broadbent.
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe” is an old British Nursery rhyme, that may evoke the bizarre true story of a homeless woman who lived in a van in Camden town in the seventies.
Author Alan Bennett wrote a book about his 15 years living with a bag lady at the end of his home’s driveway, he also performed in a play about her, and helped make ‘The Lady in the Van’ film about her, with Maggie Smith playing the itinerant Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings impersonating him.
In the film we have two Alan Bennetts: the one who writes and the Alan Bennett who observes and probes for truth. He engages in a long running debate with himself about what to do about increasingly decrepit and demanding Miss Shepherd, who smells of urine, faeces, raw onions and talcum powder. At the same time, Bennett is dealing with his mother, who suffers from dementia. And it’s only after Miss Shepherd’s eventual demise that he discovers her secret.
This cinematic narrative is a mystical experience because it transcends the mere account of a cultured woman who played the piano, but eventually abhorred music when taking her vows as a nun, and due to a series of circumstances ended up as a homeless driving her van around Camden, until she stationed it in Bennett’s driveway. The story also explores the fear of death. And the escape from past mistakes that are smothered for the terror of being judged.
The most fascinating trait analysed by the film is the duality of our persona. The way we can’t make up our minds, how there is a more rational part that is the storyteller of our lives and triggers us to take action, whilst a more bashful and coy part of our souls always takes a step back. This dichotomy is epitomised by the double Bennetts who attempt to harmonise their different impulses and will naturally manage to weld into one, once the old lady departs.
‘The Lady in the Van’ is a whimsical, poignant flick that serves as a showcase for Dame Maggie Smith as the filthy, self-centred vagrant. Director Nicholas Hytner adopts a narrative approach that crosses over to kitsch, but with a Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds verve. He puts in the cauldron hallucination, psychology, caustic British humour and a prism of emotions that mixed together emanate a rainbow of overwhelming vibes.
Written by: Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi