Maggie Smith plays “Mary Shepherd,” a former nun who is homeless and squatting in the gentrified London area called Camden Town. The residents, although annoyed by Mary’s presence, give in to helping her out when necessary, even if it is just to make themselves feel better for being able to live a life of luxury. Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), a prolific playwright, has just moved into the up-and-coming Camden area and has somehow managed to become Miss Shepherd’s friend. Well, he becomes the recipient of Miss Shepherd’s constant demands. Bennett seems to have a soft spot for Mary and we often see him engaging in lengthy conversations, getting her groceries, and allowing her to use his bathroom while the other neighbourhood residents do none of those things, they merely placate her. I mean, their position is understandable – Miss Shepherd is surly, rude and does not seem capable of saying “thank you” even though she expects others to say it to her in the rare moments she is cordial. When Mary is no longer allowed to keep her vehicle on the residential street, Bennett tells her she can park her dilapidated van in his driveway for a short period of time, until she can make other arrangements. This “short period of time” lasted fifteen years.
Lady in the Van is told from Bennett’s point of view and the portrayal of his character is split into two: “the writer” and the Alan that gets to “go out there and live”. However, even Alan himself would argue that he is not doing much living. Alan spends most of his time writing, trying to find companionship with a series of flings that end up going nowhere, and pretending to be busy so that he does not have to spend time with his mother. He assures the audience that he loves his mother, and I am sure that he does, but he also seems to do everything to avoid spending too much time with her which is interesting considering he lets Miss Shepherd consume a lot of his time. The “two” Alans quibble over what this must mean but the “living” Alan quickly dismisses it, unwilling to see that he, like his neighbours, feels guilty about an aspect in his life and uses his relationship with Mary to unburden his guilty conscious.
I don’t want to sound theatrical or anything, but Maggie Smith is everything in this film and, while she isn’t the only reason to see Lady in the Van, she is certainly the main reason. Even when she is appallingly rude and disagreeable, Smith makes us love Mary. We want to know why she is no longer a nun, how she became homeless, where she learned to speak fluent French, why some people call her Margaret and not Mary, oh and wait, she was a dedicated student of a world famous pianist but literally terrorises anyone who plays music? So many questions! This film clearly demonstrates the power that is Maggie Smith. She seamlessly portrays a cantankerous shrew while simultaneously displaying the vulnerability of such a person. A person that we all kind of know, probably from a safe distance, that we quickly dismiss because they makes us uncomfortable. And that is what is so remarkable about this film. Lady in the Van doesn’t necessarily want to make us feel guilty, it simply wants us to acknowledge that individuals like Mary are important too, especially because they make us “uncomfortable”.