An elderly woman, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), turns up in a suburb of London and parks her old van in the neighbourhood street. Obviously a tramp, and obviously on the run for a crime, Miss Shepherd lives in her van and becomes the talking point among the neighbours. She forms a fairly close attachment to one Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and eventually moves her van into his driveway. Alan is a writer and appears in the film as two persons: one who lives his life and the other who writes about his life. Whilst the kindest towards Miss Shepherd of all his neighbours, Alan nevertheless has his limits and his two selves argue about how to handle the old lady.
Alan’s mother, an old woman herself who ends up in a nursing home, features as Alan’s writing material. Whilst the story of The Lady in the Van is narrated through Alan’s writing, it does seem that Alan’s relationship with his mother represents his writing self – that is, detached from reality – whereas Miss Shepherd represents Alan’s active self – that is, the part of himself that participates in reality.
Throughout the film Alan is tested in terms of how close he will get to this cranky old hobo, and just how well he will treat this – albeit dirty and ungrateful – fellow human being. Miss Shepherd’s background begins to emerge and the viewer is ultimately left realising that all of us – including homeless, unsuitable residents – are people with a story and are deserving of love and respect.
I can’t imagine members of a South African audience putting up with a vagrant moving into their posh suburbs. And so I found the neigbourhood’s tolerance of Miss Shepherd unrealistic. Bordering a little on the sentimental The Lady in the Van also does not make enough of a statement about the humanity of all people regardless of their social standing. But it makes a start. Definitely not an action film, The Lady in the Van will not be everyone’s cup of tea but is nevertheless a sweet, thoughtful drama.
The Lady in the Van opens at cinemas in South Africa on 11 December 2015.