Another night with the Orange County Film Society; the lights dim, the theater darkens, the sudden bright light of the screen beckons you into its projection, things get a little passionate…Indeed, they do ladies and gentlemen, for film is a loving and numbing mistress. Thursday night’s love affair was The Lady in the Van starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings screened at the South Coast Regency Theater in Santa Ana.
The film follows the playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) in 1973 London as he develops a rather unexpected friendship with Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), a homeless vagabond who happens to live in a van parked in his driveway for fifteen years. She is uncouth and haunted by her past, which at times quite literally follows her. The film does not intend to deny its literary nature; it reads like a book, a story within a story, a story-in-the-making. The “narrative,” if one may call it that, is carried by the discovery of the characters, a reconciliation of the past with the present, a study between reality and fiction.
Alan moves into a small enclave in London in 1970 in what seems to be the beginning of his own self-discovery. In fact, there are two Alan Bennetts, the writer and the being, the part of him that “does the living,” constantly in dialogue with one another over what should be done and how. Although there are two of the Alex Jennings’ character, the performance is muted in comparison to Maggie Smith’s characterization and the strength of her performance. The film focuses on his self-discovery, but it is Miss Shepherd whom we, like he, are most intrigued by.
Alan writes mostly about himself, a monologue that he himself delivers on stage (as we see later on) and is opposed to writing about his mother, as he has in the past, or Miss Shepherd for that matter. Miss Shepherd goes from front-house to front-house, parking her van to see how long she lasts until the police begins to crack down on towable vehicles. The community discusses it, and Alan allows her into his driveway, thus beginning his objective exploration of who Miss Shepherd is. Indeed, Bennett seems to treat his life as if it were all material for a literary fantasy. He writes about the subject he knows most – himself – and yet even then the story is an impersonal one, portrayed to the viewer through an encounter with such an unlikely person. He is the observer, though despite his protestations, is evidently also quite interactive in defending and even caring for Miss Shepherd.
But who is she? The film spans fifteen years, which is astonishing considering that time in the film is carried by stages of character development and emotional dips that profoundly dig into the past, into the ailing yet still pious heart of Miss Shepherd. Throughout the film, she’s irritated by Classical music whenever she hears it, leading the viewer to question whether it’s guilt she’s hiding from, or an unrealized dream. The character channels such a charming amalgamation of characteristics and such a wide range of emotion that carries through all of her life. Maggie Smith plays the character in such a way that makes her neither likable nor insufferable. The van, in essence, becomes a vehicle for her identity, a vehicle for dirty laundry and hidden pasts, hidden histories. She carries the van, never does the van carry her. There’s understanding between Alan and Miss Shepherd, a bond that perhaps Alan could not even quite sustain with his own mother (Gwen Taylor). The relationship then is complimentary, albeit complete with bickering and the occasional argument or two.
The film is not marked or contained by time. In its adaptive form, contained within an unlikely bond between two people that assuredly have two sides to each of them. The film showcases a reconciliation of the self, eliminating time as a factor (something that only comes up to remind the viewer how much time has actually elapsed since Alan welcomed Miss Shepherd into his driveway). The film is lighthearted at its core but also sprinkled with emotionally profound connections between Miss Shepherd and the piano, as well as evidently Miss Shepherd and Alan.
Despite The Lady in the Van being a self-reflexive take on one writer’s journey toward self-discovery, the film seems to balance, if not focus substantially more on, the subject, Miss Shepherd, rather than the story’s perspective or interactive observer, Alan Bennett. The film is a moment, a breath that spans fifteen years of peculiarity in the lives of both characters.
And so we bid thee, readers, adieu. Until next time, you, me, and Film—it’s a date.
Image Source: The Guardian