As I watched “The Lady in the Van,” thinking about how I would write about it later in the week and trying to pull together words that described what I was watching on screen, I kept coming across the word “eccentric.” It’s used throughout the film to describe Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey”), and it does seem to fit perfectly, but as I thought about it, I realized the word wasn’t adequate to paint a picture of the person it described.
It’s a testament to Smith’s performance that she expands her character beyond a single word. She transcends simple description and conveys a multi-faceted realness that makes her hard to encapsulate on paper. “The Lady in the Van” tells the true story of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, “The Queen”), an English playwright, and his unlikely friendship with the homeless woman who lives on his street in her characteristic yellow van. After watching her struggle with permit laws and harassment from other neighbors, he allows her to park in his driveway, where she stays for the next 15 years until her death. Not kind, naïve or patient, as one might expect a struggling old woman to be, Miss Shepherd unfolds as an obstinate and seemingly ungrateful former nun who, nevertheless, wins our sympathy by the end of the film.
Although “Lady in the Van” revolves around the relationship between two characters, it works also as a simultaneous exploration of the self. While Bennett wrestles with his voice as a writer, Miss Shepherd also struggles through aspects of her past that she is reluctant to confront. While Shepherd acts as the more unconventional character, the devices used to tell these dual stories work to paint the two as equals. Bennett’s warring writerly and practical voices are shown as cohabitants, sharing his house and acting almost as mirror-like twins, both played by Jennings, while Shepherd’s story unfolds more conventionally through flashbacks. In this way, the film uses surreal narrative techniques to its advantage.
This strange crossover between the fantastical and realistic turns the film into one equally as focused on the act of storytelling as it is on the plot. Much of the dialogue and many of the scenes focus on specific, real details of Miss Shepherd’s life, her unsavory bathroom habits in the van or the subsequent smell that overwhelms all those who come into contact with her. Bennett does not shy into niceties in his portrayal of the woman, preferring candid voiceovers and conversations with himself. In many instances, Miss Shepherd utters a suddenly poignant line or insight, only to have the momentary suspension of her ornery attitude thwarted by Bennett telling us that he wrote this moment in; it didn’t actually happen. It’s an exercise in reading between the lines of what she did say, and an exploration of her strangeness from the person closest to her. Regardless of the clever writing and plot devices, though, it’s Maggie Smith’s performance that carries the film. With her trademark dignity she’s able to keep from coloring Shepherd as a caricature of homelessness, and with a performance that ranges from guilt to sadness to moments of unexpected humor, she keeps character at the heart of the story.