The Lady in the Van Parent Review
Audiences expecting a platitude of "warm fuzzies" will instead find more of an observation of human behavior as Smith delivers an award-worthy performance. Profanity the major content issue for teens.
The opening title to Alan Bennett’s Lady In The Van reminds us the story is “for the most part true”. One could speculate what did and did not happen, but the core aspect of this plot is grounded in reality: Bennett did invite Miss Mary Shepherd to park her van on his London driveway for a short while. Sixteen years later, Shepherd passed away, still living in the Bedford van.
Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) first took notice of Miss Shepherd (played by Maggie Smith) when she set up her home on wheels in front of another residence on his quiet street in Camden. Not surprisingly, none of his neighbors wanted her to stay. For instance, when one family discovered their child’s music lessons were driving Shepard crazy, they made sure their window was always open. Eventually the stray pulled her dilapidated vehicle in front of Bennett’s home. His overture to have her squat on his property wasn’t completely selfless: The playwright and actor realized if she’d park in the driveway he would see less of her ugly van. And so it began…
Years pass and the love-hate relationship between the two creatures of habit works as a foil to reveal the deepest fears and frustrations of each. Bennett constantly talks to himself as he wrestles with his need for compassion towards, versus irritation against, the vagabond. Meanwhile we discover the inciting incident in Miss Shepherd’s life that brought her to become an unwashed, “odoriferous concerto” of a lawn ornament.
Containing three sexual expletives, along with some other profanities, Lady In The Van holds few other major content barriers to teen viewing. Bennett, obviously gay, is visited by a variety of men (implied to be prostitutes), however no sexual activity or discussion is seen or heard. Violence is limited to verbal arguments and the brief depiction of a dead body.
Smith delivers an award-worthy performance in this production where it feels like the director gave her free reign to drive her character. One may also assume the cultural quirks of this film will play much better to those who will appreciate the subtleties of English culture—including the societal right to park a messy caravan surrounded by garbage (including fecal waste) on a residential street. “Not in my front yard,” will likely be the reaction of most North American viewers.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of this UK-made movie is its conclusion. Throughout, Bennett is always the reluctant provider and Shepard is a never grateful recipient. Audiences expecting a platitude of “warm fuzzies” will instead find more of an observation of human behaviour—both good and bad. If you come prepared for that, then Lady In The Van may be a film worth parking on your sofa to see.Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Dominic Cooper, James Corden. Running time: 104 minutes. Theatrical release January 15, 2016. Updated May 12, 2016
Get details on profanity, sex and violence in The Lady in the Van here.
The Lady in the Van Parents Guide
What was Alan Bennett’s attitude toward Miss Shepard? Have you ever been put in a position where you ended up giving more than you intended? Is giving out of duty (or, in Bennett’s case, out of a desire to have a nicer view) better or worse than not giving at all? What other choices did Bennett have?
What is Miss Shepard’s attitude toward receiving help? Why does she react the way she does? Might her life have been better had she been more gracious?
What role does pride play in the lives of both of these characters? How does pride affect our ability to improve ourselves?
Did you know that Mary Shepherd, the lady in the van, really did live in writer Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years? Here is the book he wrote about their relationship, which he later turned into a stage play.