Alan Bennett may be the Michel de Montaigne of our present age. Starting from the very personal, he composes perfect gems of reflection on the human condition as a whole. Where Montaigne was limited to the personal essay, Bennett essays several creative outlets, including memoir, theater and film, which brings us to THE LADY IN THE VAN, which has been incarnated in all three media. It’s based on Bennett’s experience of having a homeless woman and her van take up residence in his garden, and on the prickly, reluctant, yet oddly intimate relationship the two developed over the course of 15 years and several vans.
Bennett (Alex Jennings) encounters the eponymous lady, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) when she requires his assistance in moving the ancient van that serves as her abode. He complies, not out of a spirit of bonhomie, or of charity, but rather out of the politeness inherent in the slightly embarrassed, instinctively deferential quality of the English character. It’s a quality that Miss Shepherd has abandoned along with a fixed address, and thus when street parking is no longer an option, she bustles into Bennett’s life and property as a cascade of adroitly composed rags, using a formidable will that operates not so much with a forthright demand, as a determined cajoling that forces the man to offer a corner of his small garden. And to despise himself for being so weak even as his fascination for Miss Shepherd’s unexpected accomplishments and fanciful theology grows.
We are treated to that Miss Shepherd. There is also no softening of the personality, or the less than hygienic fallout of having her in such close proximity. Bennett does her the honor of presenting her on her own terms, and Smith, with eyes that challenge and accuse simultaneously, and a state of perpetual affront, maintains Miss Shepherd’s sense of self-worth and dignity with a ferocity to match the verbal barbs that constitute her conversation, sniffing at the self-conscious charity shown by the residents of her upscale neighborhood who proffer her leftover Crème brûlée, and snapping at a social worker in a voice that squeaks with indignation and excitement when the hapless young woman brings her a coat in the wrong color. Yet this is never a one-note caricature of eccentric old age. The tough old woman’s skin is just thin enough to reveal the psychic pain and agitated soul beneath that has informed her behavior without ever demanding pity or even sympathy. This homelessness, this exile in the midst of a city, is self-imposed, a penance for, and a relief from, what has come before.
Dramatic liberties have been taken, in the interest of storytelling, the most piquant of which finds Bennett of two minds. Literally. There is the writer, forever sitting at his desk and scribbling away while the other Bennett lives the life that the writer writes. There is sniping between the two, making for the lively dialogue of externalized inner monologue rife with its own mordant humor and wry drama. The two Bennetts regard one another with baleful eyes and a mixture of envy and pity as they comment on each other, and on the world unfolding beyond the front window before which the writer perches. Jennings is all pursed lips and an awkwardness of adolescence that has somehow become perfectly at home in a middle-aged man. Calm on the outside, and sheepishly rebellious on the inside as Bennett ponders how he came to be the chronicler of old women, first his increasingly addled mother, and now Miss Shepherd.
THE LADY IN THE VAN is a tour de force for Smith. The pleasure in watching her blithely dominate the screen is the pleasure of watching a master at work, evincing a knowledge not just of what makes her character tick, but also of knowing how it relates to us all, and, moreover, knowing how to convey that knowledge, fearlessly, effortlessly, and dynamically, with a grateful audience.