The lady in the van

At 81 years old, Dame Maggie Smith proves with her latest film that there is still nothing she can’t do. She is a star. I’ll just mention Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter films as proof of her longevity. In The lady in the van, Smith plays Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman living in her van. Shepherd was a real person. Playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) let Miss Shepherd park her van and stay in his driveway for 15 years. Bennett himself adapted his own 1999 play for the screen. Smith reprises the role she played in the original 1999 theatrical production. Bennett’s difficult relationship with Shepherd starts when she parks her van on the street where he lives. The film was shot in the house where the real events took place on Gloucester Crescent, in London’s Camden Town. Miss Shepherd is not the easiest woman to have as the neighborhood bag lady. That’s what she is. There are bags stuck under the van and she sleeps in that van surrounded by bags. Mary Shepherd was probably suffering from some form of mental illness. In the film, Shepherd cannot stand to hear music, she screams every time children sing or someone plays the flute, she stinks, the van stinks and she’s aggressive to anyone she meets. Bennett and Shepherd became more acquainted after he first allowed her to use his washroom. When new bylaws would have made it possible for her van to be towed, Bennett agreed to let her park her van in his driveway. When Bennett digs into Shepherd’s past he finds out that her real name was Margaret Fairchild, she was actually a classical pianist. He also learns that her van was hit by a motorcyclist and that the incident terribly traumatized her. The material shows its theatrical origins with a gimmick: The play and the film has two Alan Bennetts, the writer and the one who lives the life of Alan Bennett. The first Alan only sits and writes while the second Alan does all the other stuff. They have conversations and discussions about Alan’s life and about Miss Shepherd. What worked on the stage won’t necessarily work on film. This does not work. But if you are a fan of Maggie Smith, you will find everything here that you’d expect from her. I was amazed at the range she shows in The lady in the van. Her comic delivery is priceless. And there is a scene at the end where Mary Shepherd sits at a piano to play Chopin. She is like a little girl again. Smith’s ability to tap into Mary Shepherd’s fragility is simply brilliant. Dame Maggie Smith should be named International Treasure. Mary Shepherd/Margaret Fairchild died in 1989.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The lady in the van

Directed by:

Nicholas Hytner

Screenplay by:

Alan Bennett

Based on his own play


Maggie Smith

Alex Jennings

Jim Broadbent

Frances de la Tour

Roger Allam

James Corden

104 min.

Rated Parental Guidance



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