The Three Rivers Film Festival showed “The Lady in the Van” to Pittsburgh before its US premiere engagements. Maggie Smith creates another marvelous performance as Miss Shepherd, an eccentric woman living out of her van. The film is based on true incidents. Miss Shepherd has delusions of grandeur including contact with the Virgin Mary. She believes the wheels of her van are under divine protection.
Miss Shepherd parks her van on the London street where playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) lives. Bennett later invites the woman to park her van in his driveway where she remains for 15 years. In 1999 Bennett (“The Madness of King George”, “The History Boys”) wrote his play “The Lady in the Van” which like this film starred Smith and was directed by Nicholas Hytner. The film was shot on the street and in the house where Bennett lived.
Impressively, the film doesn’t sentimentalize Miss Shepherd who remains haughty and abrasive. Bennett has provided Smith with some strong dialog that she delivers with acerbic flair. The woman remains odoriferous, putting smelly plastic bags under her van. Bennett gradually discovers details from Miss Shepherd’s past, as she is confronted by a blackmailer (Jim Broadbent).
The film also presents an intriguing self-analysis of Alan Bennett. Bennett ponders his life and talks with his writer-self who is watching and analyzing. Bennett considers his solitary life dull compared to the woman living in his driveway. Miss Shepherd is also contrasted with Bennett’s mother whose condition is deteriorating.
The film becomes an absorbing view of an unusual relationship that affects both the playwright and his lady in the van.