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A Life Outside The Law: The Lady In The Van

Updated on February 28, 2016

Sometimes, people can get to know each other without really knowing each other. A writer and an elderly homeless woman have some shared experiences in 1970s amd 1980s London in the mostly true story The Lady In The Van. Maggie Smith stars as the title character, a woman named Miss Mary Shepherd, who calls an old grey van her home. She'd lived in the van for years, following a traffic mishap that resulted in the death of a young motorcyclist. She'd fled the scene with police in pursuit. She successfully gave the law the slip, and years later, Mary brought her rathrer old vehicle to the Camden Towns section of London. It is there she first makes the acquaintance of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), a young writer and performer who has just purchased a home in this section of the city, where other artists and art patrons call home. Others object to Mary parking in front of their homes, or Mary becomes irritated by the neighbors and other distractions. When police take notice of her van, Mary finds Alan accommodating when she asks for temporary parking in his driveway.

That temporary arrangement would turn out to last for fifteen years, where she became a squatter of sorts at Bennett's house. In time, she buys a new van, which becomes stuck there when she applies the parking brake. As she did with her previous van, Mary painted the vehicle yellow. Because of her less pleasing ways, Alan does put some restrictions on Mary while still watching out for her. He becomes curious when a man named Underwood (Jim Broadbent), a man who has a connection with Mary's past, starts to pay visits to a woman he calls Margaret, often late at night. During her entire time at Alan's, Mary regularly gets visits from a social worker. Sometimes, that person asks questions of Alan. As the 1980s draw to a close, both the worker and Alan think that Mary should seek treatment for some issues in the hospital. While she rejects the hospital, she does agree to get some treatment at a local day center. Mary also entrusts Alan with some contact information, which helps him get a clearer picture of the squatter he has observed from a bit of a distance.

The Lady In The Van, which began its life as a memoir by Bennett, has also been translated to the stage and the radio. The movie has its moments of comedy and drama, as the relationship between between Alan and Mary/Margaret never grows close, but never falls apart. While Mary stays in the driveway, Alan tries to maintain a balance between a doer and a writer, as he finds an unexpected source for material with this arrangement. He also keeps busy with writing and performing other material. Alan uses this situation to relate to the situation he has with his own aging mother (Gwen Taylor), whose own memory issues force Alan to put her into assisted living. Bennett has been involved with every one of the performance adaptations. For the film (as well as the stage), Bennett pairs with director Nicholas Hytner. This pair has also worked on screen with The History Boys in 2006, as well as The Madness Of George III (aka The Madness Of King George) in 1994. The Lady In The Van is a nice, though undistinguished, slice of life about two people who couldn't be more different sharing an area of land where Mary might live anyway had her life gone differently.

Smith has played Mary/Margaret on stage, on radio, and on film. Here, she gives a fine performance as a woman who never found her place in life until she started to live it so unconventionally. Alan learns she'd once been a concert pianist, yet she can't stand the sound of music. When Margaret gave thought to becoming a nun, her order detested the idea that she'd want to play the convent's piano. She also had stints as an ambulance driver and a mental patient. In the van, though, she is her own person who answers only to herself, remaining unnotified of the outcome of her motor accident as regards her. Jennings is solid as the humble and slightly helpful Alan, who objected to any thought that he cared for Mary/Margaret. He simply watches out for her at times, and gives her the space to be herself. Her presence adversely affects his personal life, and in some scenes, Alan literally stands beside himself as he debates how involved he should be with her. Broadbent adds fine support as the manipulative Underwood, who knows something neither Mary nor Alan know. All of the key actors from The History Boys make small appearances as well, save for the late Richard Griffiths. The real Alan Bennett makes a cameo late in the film.

When two people become acquainted, they have the opportuinity for a learning experience. A writer and performer might not always see his de facto neighbor as a learning experience, but he finds himself wondering about her and her life story. He keeps a distance for certain reasons, yet they do have a bond of trust. The Lady In The Van shows an unusual relationship that happened because a homeowner dealt with the title character in a way she deemed appropriate. Both made some big sacrifices in their lives, but those sacrifices led them to a place where they found differing rewards.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Lady In The Van three stars. The lady has made her home.


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    • profile imageAUTHOR

      Pat Mills 

      3 years ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks Mel. This is a good slice of life picture. I am watching the Oscar red carpet interviews, and will watch all the way through the final Oscar. The Best Picture nominees are all very good, and the predictions on the winner have varied. I won't be unhappy with the final outcome.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      This looks refreshingly original. Hope you are watching the Oscars tonight. Should be fun. I'm rooting for the Martian. Great review!


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