Finally, a “mostly true story” that’s actually pretty true: The Lady in the Van. True because it’s written by the man, gay playwright Alan Bennett, who experienced the movie’s plot: A homeless woman, Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith), parked her van in his driveway and didn’t leave for years. Bennett adapted the screenplay from his own memoir and play (that also starred Smith).
Actor Alex Jennings plays Bennett as two different men: “One of them participates in the action while the other observes and sardonically comments on it” (Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter).
The Plot and Characterizations of The Lady in the Van
Guy Lodge, Variety:
When Bennett moves into Gloucester Crescent, a close-knit, middle-class enclave of London arts folk, in 1970, Shepherd is already antagonizing the residents, testing their liberal generosity with blunt demands and misanthropic rants. Classical music, in particular, aggravates her, with children practicing instruments getting the full brunt of her ire; any questions about her presence or plans for moving on are met with statements of daft Catholic conviction about her prescribed path…
Stephen Holden, New York Times:
Mary, who dresses in castoff clothing, is unkempt and seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is pungently odoriferous. Her bodily fluids are kept in plastic bags that too often end up on the driveway, and Mr. Bennett is forever cleaning up after her, both outside and inside the house. At vulnerable moments, disturbed by sounds outside the van, she cowers like a frightened animal under her bedclothes in semidarkness. In the scariest scene, local ruffians bang on the windows and rock the vehicle back and forth.
Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times:
A hilarious supporting cast shines as neighborhood gossips and do-gooders, especially Frances de la Tour as Bennett’s empathetic ally and Roger Allam as an exasperated bystander. Visually the movie is mostly unremarkable, though its set — Bennett’s real home in London’s quaint Gloucester Crescent locale, lends a warmth and realism to the story…
Ella Taylor, NPR: “Bit by bit, flashbacks clear up the mystery of why a woman so down on her luck would have a posh accent, speak fluent French, perk up at a few bars of Beethoven, and go down on her knees early and often to seek atonement for a crime she may or may not have committed.”
Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter: “The character’s backstory is ultimately revealed in an encounter between Bennett and her older brother that movingly illustrates how anyone’s life can turn on a dime if afflicted with mental illness.”
The Trailer for The Lady in the Van
Ella Taylor, NPR: “Divided against himself and forever unsure of his own motives, Bennett Squared isn’t just telling the story of his encounter with one of England’s dispossessed. He’s conducting an inquiry into the roots of kindness, where he finds indolence, passivity, self-interest — and a genuine desire to help and heal that he sees in the very doctors, social workers and ambulance drivers routinely fingered in movies as the enemy.”