Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd guarding her side as she allows herself to be taken to hospital
Friends and readers,
There is a great distance between the reviews of this film, the stills you see on the Internet, and the film itself. The film is a wrenching story on several levels set in a weak film; the reviews mostly overpraise saying very little but giving an impression of arch light comedy which we are told is nonetheless weighty but not why.
The story or source are scattered entries in Bennett’s life-writing diary covering 15 years in which Alan Bennett gradually allowed himself to become Margaret or Mary Shepherd’s care-giver, first seeking to get her as street nuisance into his empty driveway and into safety, not protesting when she used his house for whatever she needed (including for a chair to rest), then helping her daily, for example shopping
to the point where finally the social workers come to him and one complains that she “senses hostility” in him (I laughed wildly at this utterance both times she spoke in this ever-so-patient manner) by way of complaining about his “attitude” or Miss Shepherd’s non-cooperation which include delusions about the Virgin Mary that must be accommodated. This is one-half of the overt central plot-design of an hour and 45 minute film.
The other half, or set of events interwoven are about Bennett’s own mother who we are first shown as in good health, but old and feeling justifiably neglected as he hardly ever comes to visit; she then gradually declines to the point he puts her in a retirement community, then assisted living, and finally into a bed where she seems comatose. He is represented as two Alex Jennings, him as a man living his daily life, and him as a writer observing and writing about himself.
To understand these juxtapositions and doublings you must know about Alan Bennett the real man. Sometime during his boyfriend his mother was put in an asylum because he and his father could not cope with her breakdowns and eventual insanity; his father was deeply depressed over this, and (as I recall) is presented as wanting to kill himself; they were lower middle class and had not much money to improve his mother’s care. Father and son felt destroyed by their decision and yet they could not keep her. In the film Miss Shepherd lives in fear someone will put her in an asylum. What Bennett has done is displace his real mother into softened fictionalized version of her as older mother next to Miss Shepherd to suggest to the viewer (and the writer says this) that he took care of Miss Shepherd to compensate for his lack of care when he was much younger for his real mother.
The backstory of who Miss Shepherd was when young and how she got this way, which is important in the film too, is kept to the margins because the story is about Bennett and this fifteen year experience even though he says near the close forming a first sort of climax that he put together her life over the 15 years and learned that her private life was in some ways more dramatic, theatrical, unusual than his.
The film opens with a concert done as an old film where we see a young woman playing a piano as part of an elegant orchestra. Little incidents, visits, information about a sister and brother-in-law combine to unfold a life of aspiration, gifts for music recognized, early achievement, which was mysteriously brought to an end when she entered a convent as a poor religious Catholic girl. The nuns disciplined her cruelly, would slam the piano cover on her hand when they caught her playing, dressed her poorly. We are never sure how she escaped them but it was too late for a career or marriage.
A woman alone with no career or husband or money does not do well. So we are left to imagine a Cathy Come Home story where there was no home, but a crook of some sort she now has to pay to stay away. I became uncontrollably distressed when a single flashback showed us that the opening of the film was her driving from a crime scene where she had run into a young man on a bike and killed him. Thus her hiding out and fear of police. We see her from time to time praying intensely in improbable places. At the shock of the crash and the spattering of blood, broken glass, I cried out and twisted in my seat such that the friend I was with worried for a moment.
It was not until then that I realized I found Smith’s performance as a homeless friendless ancient tenacious woman who makes a home for herself and the accumulated relics, remnants, junk and trash of her existence in a van pitch perfect enough to distress me deeply somewhere in myself. I went home needing a glass of wine immediately. She was by turns frightened (of a police car when we first see her) so driving at a frantic rate; ridiculous and dignified; stalwartly actually taking herself on a vacation to the beach at Broadstairs and drinking lights drinks as she looks out at the water and sky; and pitifully stinking, weak, in need of a toilet, utterly vulnerable (to an ex-crony played by Jim Broadbent who harasses her periodically, shaking her van, demanding money); and most memorably, indomitable because she held on tight to her pride:
As I tell this it becomes stronger than it feels in the film. The most melodramatic moment occurs when a nun slams down the piano and another scolds her, and we see her fleeing through empty rooms in a convent. The rest is snippets of talk, a fleeting image her, a comment there. Admirably there is nothing over-melodramatic, no juiced-up climaxes, but inevitably (as in life) in the main story repetition as the two participants never budge from their initial positions, she not owing him anything and he not taking responsibility for her. Real and something many of us may experience from some angle in some form, material presented in this displaced way does not make for a riveting naturalistic film experience.
A friend suggested to me Bennett was too close to his material this time. We are not allowed to see or experience what is going on inside Bennett — the way we do his protagonists in Talking Heads. I know his most successful works are ironic comedy with surrogates for himself that are not recognizable. There is an allusion to these six monologue plays because in the film he is during one year of the fifteen seen playing the one closest to himself in a nearby theater. We glimpse male friends and associates now and again (Dominic Cooper plays one), and passing remarks that he hides his life from others, but we must know he is homosexual to understand this too. The present time story is punctuated by incidents where we see his neighbors reacting to Miss Shepherd, or him, or both of them. The neighbors are played by highly respected actors and actresses who seem to be friends and associated with Bennett from other plays or films, for example, Frances de la Tour as Vaugh Williams’s widow
On the Internet where I found these oddly discordant reviews, Smith is most often pictured in stills with Alex Jennings as Bennett, looking comic, arch, as if she’s having a just this great fun time pushed by Bennett in a wheelchair
but more true to the continuous quiet temperature of the film are the few of her encounters with neighbors, made up of ever so kind and tolerant but essentially indifferent people who provide no help:
Deborah Findley and Roger Allam as a married couple off to the opera.
The best reviews here and there remark on undercurrents of the film: it is a strange poignant duet of prickly unhappiness and wry humor. Most seem to overpraise except if you read carefully. The Telegraph seems to feel it stands for the best Englishness (and is just hilarious) Ebert’s column says it’s for anyone who adores Maggie Smith. A number of the more popular type (on Rotten Tomatoes) attempt critiques, it’s a Disney-like homelessness, or dull, one person talks earnestly, meaning well, taking psychological language seriously (“a misunderstood woman suffering from PTSD”), others like NPR typically take it lightly.
But it isn’t light. Look at her! Notice the fierce look in her eyes. She’s holding on to life with great difficulty. Look at how she has to dress to keep herself minimally comfortable and self-respecting. I’ve seen lots of “crazy ladies” in NYC like her. Some men too.
At the end before Miss Shepherd is taken away to hospital because she has become so very sick, the social workers feel they must take her in to do “blood work.” She looks much better when washed, dressed in a clean starched dress, her hair brushed and put into a ponytail. She eats quietly at a table. She does not die there but returns to the van. Bennett permits himself several untrue sentimental moments (one of the Alexes tells us this) and the night before she dies, she holds out her hand to him, he takes it and they squeeze. The next morning she is found dead. There is a funeral, a burial, a historical plaque like those of famous authors to show the Lady in the Van lived here 1974-1989.
But that doesn’t end it. We get one of these extraordinary post-life scenes where Miss Shepherd suddenly appears and tells Bennett she has met the young man she killed and we see them walking off together. And then we see her in an absurd translation taken into heaven with a God in sky — like the Virgin Mary she has mentioned many times in the film. It didn’t work for me as satire. But much of Bennett’s work is about religious belief and how religion is perverted, misused (I hope my reader has seen Bed Among Lentils) — and in Miss Shepherd’s life it was that.
In the film Miss Shepherd gets a new van more than once and paints it yellow-orange; Bennett as writer using a voice-over tells us Miss Shepherd was happiest when absorbed painting her latest van