By Hazel Finn (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia)


The Lady in the Van is as much a portrayal of a woman who lives in a van as it is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man.

The film is adaption of the novella written by Alan Bennett from his experience of a troubled woman who comes to live in a van in his front yard in a middle class London suburb for 15 years.

Using the device of the split self portrayed by two Alan Bennett characters (played by Alex Jennings) the film explores the dichotomous mind of the artist; a dutiful son wracked with guilt and the war within the psyche of ego versus virtue. The twin self device also functions to self-reference the writing of this factual experience into art. Frustrated by the squatter’s ungraciousness, Alan Bennett delivers a perfectly balanced assault of verbal invective to Miss Shepherd the worldly twin outs the soft compassionate writer who has taken poetic licence, “I didn’t actually say that at the time.”

It is the wrestling with twin selves that determines the narrative trajectory of the both the main characters. Alan’s on screen dialogue with his anima/animus is a constant throughout the movie; and Miss Shepherd’s inner turmoil is a secret which Alan’s curiosity seeks to discover.

Niamh Coulter’s set design creates a credible chaos of the holy mess of the van’s interior. Natalie Ward’s costume design is visceral; an audience could just about whiff the decay of Miss Shepherd’s person by the grime of her jackets and reeking decomposing layers. One disapproving resident of Gloucester Crescent observes that “the seat of her skirts have stains of endlessly varying contours which speak of her incontinence.” Director, Nicholas Hytner, takes the film further into confrontation with the uncomfortable. This film breaks the taboo of showing human excrement on film; having the anal retentive Alan Bennett step in it and clean up. We are taken into the world of the chronically unbathed and forced to face our repulsions and aversions.

The way the film deals with the subject of neglect and detritus is interesting. A Hollywood treatment would have released us from disintegration with more sparkling glimpses of Mary Shepherd’s former life as concert pianist Margaret Fairchild. Instead, this film has just fleeting releases to places of normality and success.

Maggie Smith’s performance as Margaret Fairchild/Miss Mary Shepherd is powerful. Her body language is convincing as is her ability to capture remoteness in her facial expressions. Maggie Smith gives us the pathos of the tragic, putrid clown. Whom we expect to be grateful and gracious when we bestow our best-in-human-compassion face; but this character’s vacuousness seems bottomless. It is confrontational dark humour.

George Fenton composed an unobtrusive and subtle soundtrack, using the BBC Concert Orchestra. To heighten the mischief of the troubled Miss Shepherd a recurring theme is of playful, vaudevillean folly.

The film allows for a satisfying development for the protagonist, Alan Bennett. The cessation of his mother complex coincides with both the placement of Alan’s mother in a nursing home and the eventual death of Miss Shepherd. It resolves Alan’s split self and there is the promise of a shared life with a romantic partner. And without spoiling everything, Miss Shepherd’s death is also eventuated after a resolution and transformation of the character.

I welcome that the film adds to the growing cinematic repertoire of complex female characters (see also Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).


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