The Lady in the Van
Miss Shepherd has a thing for yellow.
Whenever she acquires a different van, she paints it a nice shade of canary. It's a cheerful color—sweet and warm and springlike, even if it doesn't exactly look right in Camden Town, the upscale London neighborhood she parks in. Why yellow? And why paint it with a bathroom scrub? No one knows. Miss Shepherd is not one for explaining things.
The interior of her van is a few shades south of that chipper, sunny exterior. It's filled with old newspaper, old food, old wrappers, old woman. Miss Shepherd lives in the van. She's lived there forever—or so it would seem from the smell.
She's not really the sort of person who fits in in Camden—not since it's been cleaned up and gentrified. The neighborhood is home these days to well-off architects, writers and artists who long ago stopped starving. Not vagrants. Not that Miss Shepherd would admit to being one of those.
"I'm not a beggar!" she insists. "I'm self-employed!"
Is that because she's too disagreeable to hire? When neighborhood children give her Christmas presents, she snatches them up without so much as a thanks. When neighborhood women cook her food, she sniffs at it disparagingly—then takes it and slams the door. If she hears anyone playing music, she comes positively unglued. She does not want to hear music. Not one little bit. And even though Camden's residents are the sort of folks who reliably vote for bleeding-heart causes and scribble out checks to the latest hot nonprofit, some admit that while charity may begin at home, it should end at the curb.
"One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation," admits Miss Shepherd's nearest neighbor, playwright Alan Bennett.
But when strict local parking regulations look as though they might truly force Miss Shepherd to move on down the road, Bennett decides to open his home to her. Or, at least his driveway. He offers to let her park there for a bit, you know, until she finds another neighborhood. After all, Miss Shepherd always moves on … eventually. She's never stayed on one London street for long. Certainly he won't have this prickly, slightly unhinged hang-about living in his front yard for more than few weeks. A month or two at most.
Most definitely not for more than 15 years. That, of course, would be unthinkable.
The playwright—primly called "Mr. Bennett" by Miss Shepherd—claims to have very little interest in people. He lives alone and cares for no one, particularly not his unpaying tenant. Even when he allows her access to his driveway, he's adamant that there's no charity at work here. "It'll be easier," he explains, "but it's not a kindness." And that suits Miss Shepherd—who, remember, never expresses gratitude for anything—just fine.
But there is a certain kindness in play here—the everyday tolerance and, eventually, respect we see from Mr. Bennett and, to a lesser extent, his neighbors. They allow Miss Shepherd her privacy while hovering at the edges of her life, providing for her most basic needs and sense of safety. Even though most claim they don't like her any more than she likes them, there's still a strange affection that knits them all together. She becomes, in a sense, a real neighbor.
We also see a deep, practiced kindness from the professional caregivers who occasionally float into Miss Shepherd's sphere. A social worker visits her to make sure she's still alive, providing her with food and clothes. When the older woman agrees to go to a medical clinic, Mr. Bennett is amazed at how tenderly the orderly escorts her to the waiting ambulance—insisting that she wrap her arm around his shoulders (even though she stinks terribly) and, when she's seated in a wheelchair, how he adjusts her skirt below the knees, ensuring that her modesty remains unimpaired.
Mr. Bennett answers the door and finds a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses on his step. "Does Jesus Christ dwell in this house?" one asks. "No," Mr. Bennett says. "Try the van."
He's not kidding. We learn that, once upon a time, Miss Shepherd was a nun. And even though her order scarred her and dismissed her, she retained her faith. The interior of her van includes, amid all the detritus, pictures of Mary and other saints, along with candles she sometimes lights when she prays. At one point she drives to an intersection and gets out and prays on the street—obstructing traffic as she does so. Mr. Bennett wonders what sort of sin she must've committed in her past to engender such fervent prayer.
That past sin also sends her—repeatedly, it would seem—to a confessional booth. The priest tells her there's no need to continually ask for forgiveness for the very same sin: "Absolution is not like a bus pass," he says. "It does not run out." But Miss Shepherd is not swayed. We see her take communion; we witness a worship service.
Miss Shepherd mistakes Mr. Bennett for St. John at first, and asks him to retrieve a bit of water from the church they're both standing near so she can cool down her van. When Bennett asks whether she might need distilled water for that, Miss Shepherd says that it's "holy water: It doesn't matter if it's distilled or not." She talks about how she was "told" how far to park away from the curb (1.5 inches is spiritually optimal, she explains); also that she is "insured by heaven," and that she never chose to live in a van but was instead "chosen."
[Spoiler Warning] Near the end of the movie, after Miss Shepherd dies, she demands that Mr. Bennett give her—in the ensuing screenplay—an ascension scene. And so he does. We see her physically taken up into a heaven filled with angels. She's embraced by God, and she speaks to someone she harmed during her life. (She discovers that it wasn't actually her fault.)
Mr. Bennett is secretive about his homosexual predilections throughout most of the movie (which takes place, roughly, between 1974 and 1989). We're left to draw our own conclusions as we see a parade of men leave his house late at night. Miss Shepherd surmises that they're all "communists." At a funeral, a male mortician makes eyes at Bennett, and as the story ends, we learn that Mr. Bennett is sharing his home with a male companion.
There's talk of women's thighs and cleaning "unseen places." Bennett talks about one of his plays being about sex.
In flashback, Miss Shepherd runs into somebody with her van. We hear a scream and a thud, then see a smashed-up windshield with blood smeared across it. The victim lies in the road, blood pooling around his head.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and four s-words. We hear "b--ch," "d--n," "p---" and "bloody" (once each). Jesus' and God's names are abused three or so times each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People drink wine at a dinner party. Side characters sometimes smoke cigarettes or cigars.
Other Negative Elements
Miss Shepherd insists she's naturally a clean person—that she's won awards for it, in fact. But she's not so clean at this stage of her life. Her stench is the first thing we learn about her (through Mr. Bennett's narration), and we hear a great deal more as the movie goes on. We also learn that she's fairly liberal with her bathroom habits. Her normal "toilet" usage involves plastic bags ("strong ones, I hope," Mr. Bennett quips), but she doesn't always bother with them. Mr. Bennett complains bitterly about and sometimes steps in the "presents" she leaves in the driveway. There's talk of incontinence.
A couple of college-age kids start rocking and pounding on Miss Shepherd's van in the middle of the night.
The Lady in the Van is a true story—or, as an opening slide suggests, a "mostly true" story. Playwright Alan Bennett, the author behind the Oscar-nominated The Madness of George III and the award-winning play The History Boys, really did allow a mostly homeless, seriously smelly, somewhat crazy woman to live in his driveway for 15 years—even as he was committing his own mentally deteriorating mother to a home.
Onscreen, Mr. Bennett quotes writer/philosopher William Hazlitt: "Good nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all virtues: it is nine times out of ten more indolence of disposition." He's merciless about judging his own seemingly good nature—acknowledging it as merely timidity or actually an odd sort of selfishness. His neighbors, too, through their acts of kindness, seem to expect some sort of "payment" for their offerings of food and well-wishes: at the very least, some simple, straightforward gratitude. Miss Shepherd withholds even that meager toll, scowling and snatching her way through life without so much as a please or thank-you.
We tend to give, the movie suggests, because we get something from it. It feels good to give. Would we continue to give if that haloed recompense were removed? Would we, in short, allow Miss Shepherd to live in our driveway for 15 years?
It's a haunting question, particularly for Christians—me among them—who believe in Jesus' call to care for "the least of these" but who, very often, misunderstand what care really means. We write checks so that other people may better do the caring. We go on short mission trips and spend a week or two building a roof on a new church. Maybe we serve at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.
And then we go home.
We have done good. And we go home feeling good. But we go home to a driveway unencumbered with anything that even vaguely resembles a hand-painted yellow van.
Miss Shepherd makes it hard for her neighbors to feel good about their kindness and charity. She makes it, in fact, nearly impossible. But not always. We see joy on her face when Mr. Bennett pushes her up a hill in her wheelchair and allows her to coast down. She pleads with him to hold her hand. Perhaps there is a slow satisfaction for Mr. Bennett as he gets to know Miss Shepherd—not by her quirks, her smell, her yellow paint; but as a person. A valuable person with a rich history. A person beloved and known by God.
The Lady in the Van has its share of PG-13 content issues when it comes to its entertainment value. You've just read about them. But its life lessons are hard to quickly shake off. As I thought about those lessons while emerging from the theater, I walked by a man in a grimy green overcoat, shuffling down the sidewalk, looking at the parking meters as if a stray coin might be sticking out of one of them.
And I got in my car and drove home.
Caring is a messy business, the movie tells us, sometimes quite literally. Blessed are those who get their hands dirty.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd; Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett; Gwen Taylor as Mam; Cecilia Noble as Miss Briscoe
Nicholas Hytner ( )
January 15, 2016
April 19, 2016