The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van

(M) Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings

Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a playwright who likes his solitude. He decides to buy a house in Camden Town, London, on a nondescript street that is known for its eccentric and artistic residents. Alan seems to have found the best place to write his plays in peace. Then he comes in contact with the most unique and divisive resident of the neighbourhood, Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith). A long-term resident, Mary doesn’t live in a house but in her Bedford van, parked on the seemingly idyllic street. She moves up and down the street to find different places to park her van. Not long after Alan moves in, Mary chooses to park in front of his house. As time passes, he moves beyond the smell and reluctantly begins to care for Mary. Eventually, Alan offers for this vagabond visitor to move her mobile home into his driveway. What was meant to be a three-month arrangement becomes a 15-year relationship between the two offbeat neighbours.

This tale of self-expression, discovery, mental-illness and yellow paint is based on actual events. Alan Bennett originally documented his caustic but humorous experiences and relationship with Miss Shepherd as a play. Avoiding the trappings of sentimentality, the big-screen version of The Lady in the Van is a fascinating depiction of homelessness, the treatment of the elderly and how absolution from sins works.

The challenge for director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible) is taking two seemingly self-absorbed and unappealing central characters, and developing them into something that draws the audience in. He manages this by slowly peeling back the layers of Bennett and Shepherd, which helps to explain their quirky behaviour and isolation from their past and families.


In the lead roles, Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings prove to be masters of their craft. They provide the simmering depth needed for these multi-dimensional individuals who, in their individual attempts to separate from humanity, come to realise their need for community and one another.

Like Bennett’s stage plays, the subtlety of the dialogue is meant to capture our attention more than any special effects. Some of the story elements are disturbing, but Bennett and Hytner seem to be merely telling the story instead of making a grand statement about homelessness and mental illness. These are merely nuances of real individuals who find themselves in a unique life situation.

Overall, The Lady in the Van is well-written and directed, apart from its weak ending. Hytner seems to have reached the end of shooting this movie … and runs out of ideas. Still, this is a minor infraction in an otherwise good film.

There is a dinner discussion during the film where Alan and his neighbours are commenting upon the existence of Miss Shepherd on their quaint street. Most of the comments are disparaging, until one neighbour brings up Mary’s place in humanity. This opens a discussion about the value of all of mankind, regardless of their financial position.

Homelessness and the poor have been part of society throughout history. The Bible shares a fair bit about how we should treat the less fortunate in society, valuing their humanity and caring for our fellow residents of this world.

At the core of the Christian message is that humanity’s value is not found in where anyone physically resides, but in their relationship with God.

Like the dual personality of Alan Bennett in the film, I am of two minds about The Lady in the Van. The acting and underlying message had value, but the delivery was painfully slow. The characters and film were interesting, but they were not very likable in the end.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

  1. What does the Bible say about homelessness? (Proverbs 19:17, Luke 3:10-11)
  2. How are we supposed to respond to those with mental illnesses? (Psalm 34:17-20, Philippians 4:6-7)
  3. Where can we find true forgiveness? (Mark 11:25, Ephesians 4:32)

Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger

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