There’s a moment, mercifully brief, in the middle of director Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van that is quite obviously the “trailer shot,” the one intended solely for the commercials. It is joyous. It is elevating. It is baloney. It will cause viewers to be transported out of the film, out of their seats, out of the theater, aloft with the birds, down the urban canyons of glass and steel and onto the ledge outside a corporate conference room, where one movie exec is saying to another, “We gotta find some way to sell this movie!”
Hence the scene in question: The vagabond Miss Shepherd, the lady of the title, played by the venerable Maggie Smith, careening delightedly down a residential London street in a runaway wheelchair; a woman giddy with flight, intoxicated by speed, perhaps reliving some recklessly carefree days of her youth—whatever you want to project onto the scene, the scene will happily absorb it. That the sequence has almost nothing to do with the spirit, or spirituality, of the movie at hand can be viewed as a tradeoff: It will give the distributor something to sell, while allaying any tenuous ticket-buyer’s fear that what is on sale is a serious movie.
Because while ostensibly a comedy, “The Lady in the Van” is also a profoundly serious movie. It is not really about rattling wheelchairs or giddy old ladies, and not really about Maggie Smith, or her character Miss Shepherd—whose Christian name is Mary, or Margaret, depending on who knew her when. What the movie is about is the nature of charity. And the man who is chasing the wheelchair.
In the late 1960s, the playwright Alan Bennett (“Beyond the Fringe,” “The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) moved onto London’s genteel Gloucester Crescent, a street in Camden Town populated by other artists and writers, people who were absorbed in creative pursuits but hardly oblivious to property values—or what damage might be done to them by the presence of a certain Miss Shepherd, who had taken up residence on the street, literally, some time before Bennett’s arrival. Moving her dilapidated van up and down the block from day to day, skirting parking restrictions and vagrancy laws, Miss Shepherd ate and slept in the vehicle and performed whatever ablutions an aging homeless woman might need perform within close proximity to her parking spot du jour.
“Nuisance” would be one way to describe her. “Unwelcome” would be another. “Tolerated” would be a third, within limits, at least by most of Bennett’s neighbors. And Bennett himself? Most would say he acted above and beyond the call of civic if not necessarily Christian duty: One day, he acceded to her suggestion that he allow her to park in his unused driveway. She stayed there 15 years.
The film is based on Bennett’s script, which began as a memoir in the London Review of Books, morphed into a radio drama on the BBC and then became a stage play starring Smith. “The Lady in the Van” would be a fairly flimsy construct of a very British kind of comedy, full of frustrated impulses of the strictly human vs. English human variety and a constant conflict between what is decent and what is correct, if not for the nagging question it poses about what drives a generous instinct. “It’s not kindness, it’s convenience,” Bennett (Alex Jennings) says at one point, conceding to himself (literally—there are two Bennetts in the movie, the weak willed and the strong) that what seems to others like kindness on his part is just a way of avoiding the unpleasantness that might be involved in ridding Gloucester Crescent of its one seemingly immovable inhabitant.
Not that he wants to get rid of her. He would rather she just go away. But the thing he wants more is to appear the decent chap, not the type who says, as one neighbor does, “This is London; nobody’s kind.” Bennett, in a kind of backhanded compliment to himself, acts in a way that is kind and generous and empathetic, while admitting all the while that such qualities are not selfless, that they in fact bring their own rewards—some even more valuable, perhaps, that the ones he bestows on Miss Shepherd.
He also has to admit to himself that his charitable impulses toward Miss Shepherd are a redirection of the feelings he has—or doesn’t—for his aging mother, on whom he draws regularly for comic material, but without a commensurate feeling of love or devotion. Being nice to his outdoor tenant is a way of doing penance. A shortcut to redemption. “I’m not a saint, I’m just lazy,” Bennett says later. For us the audience, Bennett’s self-effacement is nothing short of a provocation.
And Miss Shepherd? An interesting case. What is unknown to Bennett and his neighbors—who include Ursula Vaughan Williams, widow of Ralph, played by the always delicious Frances de la Tour—is that Miss Shepherd is a woman in hiding. They would never have asked her anything—Miss Shepherd is a woman who never says thank you, not even for the presents and crème brûlée brought to her on Christmas; she never says she’s sorry (“’Sorry’ is for God,” she says). But we know what she’s about, because the movie has begun with a crash and a bang and some blood smeared across Miss Shepherd’s windshield, and her flight from a crash and a policeman (Jim Broadbent), who decided to blackmail her rather than turn her in. And so began her life on wheels.
The other big “reveal,” though not so big—but big enough to warrant an alert that we will now spoil it—is that Miss Shepherd was a nun, a “disputatious” nun, if one of her co-convent dwellers is to be believed, but also a musical prodigy whose pianism was forbidden her as an exercise in obedience. An exercise in cruelty, the movie would say, since the loss of the piano is as dispiriting to Miss Shepherd as the fact that she lives in a van. Music haunts the movie, and Miss Shepherd can’t bear to hear it badly played; but during a day trip to Blackpool, she is entranced enough by a free public performance that she does the previously unthinkable, and sits and listens. She also plays, though it might be a dream, and Smith is such a good actress that the music makes her younger.
She seems so, at any rate. And “The Lady in the Van” seems like it could be one of those Christmas movies that is not really a “Christmas movie” but works with the season, because it is about all the right things. Motiveless humanity. Irrational kindness. Doing good when you know full well that no good deed, at least on behalf of Miss Shepherd, will go unpunished. Yes, director Hytner’s movie is something of a pat on the back for playwright Bennett, but it does not dilute the message of the movie. And he certainly seems to have earned it.