Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings
(Pg-13, 104 min.)
“One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.” ― Alan Bennett, The Lady in the Van
She’s just a bag lady who lives in a van. And you can smell her coming a mile away. But Dame Maggie Smith imbues her with the same aristocratic dignity as Downton Abbey’s Dowager Duchess.
The “mostly true” dark comedy seems made to order for Dame Smith, who relishes her decade and a half of imperious reign as resident vagabond terrorizing the meek locals in the London Borough of Camden. It’s that same blend of assumed privilege and unabashed eccentricity that several of my own aunts and perhaps some of yours used to wield their (mostly) benign tyranny.
How much is spontaneous and how much is calculated cunning we never quite know.
Miss Shepherd, who we are informed was once a nun, often props up her demands in religious wrappings. She asks Mr. Bennett (Alex Jennings) when she first comes upon him if he is Saint Thomas, and perhaps relieved that he is not, finds ample use for him nevertheless. Can he, by chance, give her van a push?
She even uses it as a cudgel to get preferred parking in front of a less than enthusiastic property owner:
Rufus: Sorry, you can't park here.
Miss Shepherd: No, I've had guidance. This is where it should go.
Rufus: Guidance? Who from?
Miss Shepherd: The Virgin Mary. I spoke to her yesterday. She was outside the post office.
It’s as if she knows these residents, many of them suddenly finding themselves in unexpected affluence, have just enough guilty underpinnings that she can mold to her purposes. And when on the street parking becomes illegal, the shy resident Alan Bennett is putty in her hands.
She could get an income from social services if only she had an address, she muses. Just a driveway off the street to settle in “temporarily.”
Of course, Bennett, who wrote the book as well as the adapted screenplay, clearly portrays his mixed motives for this arrangement. And he does so with the interesting device of dividing himself into two persons, both played by Alex Jennings on screen. One is Alan Bennett, the writer, who dwells entirely in the upstairs studio, while the second Alan Bennett actually gets to live a life outside it. Their light-hearted banter and casual recriminations give us the inner monologue novelists generally have to abandon for the stage or screen.
We know his mother, who Bennett keeps at arms length in London, is the subject of many of his plays, and his writer self wonders if he also wants Miss Shepherd to fill that role as muse as well.
In fact, Miss Shepherd, having heard the audio of his play about his mother on radio, wonders as much herself, and shames him for it. He had better not try to write about her, she warns, but then in a mercurial twist one day, she saunters into his living room and proposes he conduct a radio interview with her, “the lady behind the curtain,” as she impishly suggests.
Though she lives within feet of him for all those years, Alan Bennett battles to keep his distance from Miss Shepherd and never spends too much time probing her enigmatic history. The ex-nun speaks fluent French, and despite a current rabid aversion to music, she was once an accomplished pianist, he finds out.
Miss Shepherd paints her van a vibrant marigold and adorns it with British flags, while bagged trash underpins it like so many squalid children hiding behind their mother’s skirts. That Bennett and his neighbors accept this so readily, while they seem content with just the barest sketch of their eccentric tenant’s roots is perhaps uniquely British, stiff upper lip and all that. It echoes another true story of a journalist’s friendship with a former classically trained musician in 2009’s The Soloist (German Apple Onion Soup Recipe), and makes one wonder if mental illness might be coexistent with musical genius and creative talent.
For all its comic overtones, however, the film has a haunting melancholy – of lives abandoned, talent forsaken, and human intimacy rigorously kept in check. Strangely enough, that emotional tug probably occurs because The Lady in the Van never stoops to the maudlin. And because Smith gives her Miss Shepherd a full-throated insistence on inner dignity.
Not to be missed.
She parks her van in playwright Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years, but familiarity does not breed contempt, at least not outwardly. No matter the trash bags that crowd around the van like the Praetorian Guard, Bennett always addresses his resident vagabond politely as Miss Shepherd. That is the power of her personality, to command respect and deference even in the most dire of circumstances.
The neighbors not only accept her presence in the garishly painted yellow van, but they pay her homage and bear gifts, as if she is eccentric royalty holding court.
Miss Shepherd accepts their wrapped Christmas gifts as her due with nary a nod of thanks, just as she takes in their cookies and casseroles.
Given Miss Shepherd’s name – even though we later learn it is an assumed one – what better casserole to prepare for our British bag lady than Shepherd’s Pie. That oh so very English delight of browned lamb and onions topped by golden mashed potatoes.
It might even elicit one of her very rare smiles.
And even better yet, it comes from Different Drummer’s own Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook, a tantalizing slant on cooking and crime fiction.
1 1/2 pounds lean, cooked roast lamb
3/4 ounce drippings or butter
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
11/2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
4 large potatoes, cooked and mashed
1/4 to 1/3 cup hot milk
1 ounce butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Brush an 8-cup capacity casserole with melted butter or oil. Preheat oven to moderately hot, 415 degrees. Trim meat and cut into small cubes, or grind.
Melt drippings or butter in a large pan. Add onions and cook until golden. Sprinkle in flour and mustard. Gradually add stock and blend, stirring until smooth. Bring gravy to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 minutes.
Add the meat, mint, parsley, salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce and stir. Remove from heat and spoon into casserole.
To make topping, combine potato, milk, butter, salt and pepper. Mix until smooth and creamy. Spread evenly over meat; texture the surface with fork. Bake 40-45 minutes until heated through and potato topping is golden brown.