Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Lady in the Van

Whether it was in The Prime of Miss Jean Brody or Harry Potter or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Downton Abbey or, now, The Lady in the Van, Dame Maggie Smith has never failed to excel as an actress and to delight her audience with her great charm and acting virtuosity. It is, however, quite startling, when one has gotten so accustomed to seeing her these past six years as the elegantly attired Dowager Countess of Grantham to see her now as a shabby homeless woman living in a van in someone else's driveway. Consummate British actress that she is, she pulls each very different role off perfectly!

The Lady in the Van is based on the true story of homeless and extremely eccentric Mary Shepherd (real name Margaret Fairchild) who lived in a shoddy van in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett's London home  for 15 years from 1974 to her death 1989. It depicts the odd relationship/friendship that developed between Bennet and Shepherd, who, we gradually learn, was once a gifted pianist, who tried and failed to become a nun, was committed to a mental institution by her brother, but escaped, and at some point had accidentally killed a young motorcyclist when he hit her van. She blamed herself for his death, and lived the rest of her life in fear and guilt.

In her eccentricity, Mary Shepherd visibly enacts the pathos of what fear and guilt can do to someone. In her seeming to be so lost and alone in the world, she taps into the more general tragedy of old age in our society, while a more conventional but perhaps sadder version of that old-age story is enacted by Bennett's own mother's decline and the difficult relationship between declining mother and her gay son. Finally, in her unwelcome presence in a fashionable London neighborhood, she is also a great foil for their liberal guilt.

And, like Dame Judy Dench's Philomena, in the film of that name, Mary Shepherd remains genuinely attached to the Church. There is a scene of her going to confession and even one of her going to Mass and Communion (escorted by Bennett). But, again as with Philomena, one doesn't come away with the sense that the Church had always served her all that well.

Alan Bennett was also the author of The History Boys, and one of the charms of this film is the reappearance of several of the actors from The History Boys in this movie.

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