The Lady in the Van
This is another excellent offering from BBC Films. Not only excellent, but highly, highly enjoyable.
With a screenplay by well-known British playwright Alan Bennett, based on his hit West End play of the same name, which in turn was based on his own memoir, this movie is a slightly black comedy, tinged with some sadness, about old age and homelessness, and the reactions of comfortable, middle-class suburbia.
It is based on a true story which actually happened to Alan Bennett back in the 1970s and 1980s. An old, homeless lady, Mary Shepherd, living in a decrepit van, parked it in Alan Bennett's street in the leafy London suburb of Camden Town. When the local council threatened to move her on, Bennett offered Shepherd his driveway for just a few weeks until she got things sorted. She stayed there 15 years. Shepherd and Bennett became friends, in a slightly guarded and edgy sort of way, with him offering her help from time to time with things like shopping, and occasionally, the use of his bathroom.
The role of Bennett is played to perfection by Alex Jennings, an actor probably best known in Australia for his portrayal of Prince Charles in the excellent 2006 movie, "The Queen". Indeed, in make-up, the physical resemblance between Jennings and Bennett is quite remarkable. For the role of Mary Shepherd, complete with unwashed hair and the colourless, shapeless clothing favoured by the homeless, who else could play this role but the indomitable Maggie Smith? She had played the role in the West End stage play, and reprises it in this film. She is brilliant. We love her as the waspish Dowager Countess, queen of the put-down, in "Downton Abbey"; in "The Lady in the Van" she plays someone at the absolute opposite end of the social spectrum superbly.
While I reacted to the movie as a gentle, though edgy, comedy, it has its dark, serious side. Mary Shepherd is a cantankerous, argumentative, fiercely independent old woman. It's amazing she remained on relatively good terms with Alan Bennett for as long as she did. However, she has her demons: she is on the run from the police, she hates piano music despite her gifted childhood background as a brilliant pianist; and she once trained to be a nun. All these have wrought psychological damage on her. She also has a long-lost brother, who reveals much of her past to the curious and often exasperated Bennett.
The reactions to the old lady of Bennett's friends and neighbours are a fascinating theme of the movie, too. They are a well-off, liberal, arty lot, who tolerate Mary's presence amongst them with various degrees of acceptance. However, Bennett probably hits the nail on the head when he says, at one point in the film, they are only tolerant of her because she chose his driveway, not theirs. As the old lady ages and her health declines, she is reluctantly forced to accept some help from the social services people. Her death one night in the van comes as no surprise. I thought the film's treatment of her funeral – or at least, the very last scene at the funeral – was the movie's only weak point: too overwrought and over-the-top for a woman who was so, almost brutally, down-to-earth in her approach to life. This is a tiny criticism, though.
The movie is ably directed by acclaimed British director Nicholas Hytner, who directed the West End stage version also. It's not too long, being slightly under two hours. Just about perfect. The movie was actually shot in the London suburb where the real story happened, and Bennett's actual house was used in the filming.
The story of Mary Shepherd reminded me of a homeless man, Ziggy, famous in the Brisbane suburb of Toowong some years ago. For many years he lived on the footpath in the High Street in the middle of Toowong, rain, hail or shine, surrounded by the plastic bags and other bits and pieces of his solitary life. He was quite peaceful, everybody knew him, people accepted him and would often stop to talk to him and give him food parcels. I saw him many times, though I never had the opportunity to meet him. Back then, Toowong, too, could have been called a liberal, arty place, being right next door to the University of Queensland. Eventually, though, times changed and Ziggy was moved on. I believe he was ultimately taken in by a church refuge. I don't know what happened to him after that. As Alan Bennett has commented in recent interviews, we are probably not as tolerant anymore of the quirky, "alternative" lifestyle of the homeless. These days, we regard them as a problem to be cured or removed, not valued as remnants of a simpler, more basic way of life.
I hadn't thought of Ziggy for years, till I saw this movie. The film will probably do the same to you: charm, delight and entertain you, but awaken in you some unease at how we treat the less well-off in today's society. Don't let that stop you; this is an unmissable movie.
My star rating (out of five): * * * * 3/4