In this movie, screenwriter Alan Bennett adapted a particular moment in his life to the screen which had nothing to do with his career directly, but with an old moody poor woman named MARGARET ‘Mary’ Shepherd who he met in the seventies. Mary, played wonderfully by Maggie Smith (a character that contrasts with the Countess of Grantham, the role she played in Downton Abbey), was a homeless person that lived in a yellow van and moved in and moved out from house to house (where she parked it) every three or fours days, depending on her mood and needs.
In the opening scene we see her running away from the police because, apparently, she has killed someone with her car. Later on we find out she isn’t a murderer but she had the misfortune of being in the wrong place and in the wrong time. Because of this incident, she’s on the run and wants to live ‘incognito’ but she’s too sick and old to live on her own without the help of her neighbours. That’s when Bennett, unwillingly, becomes her ally and eventually, her friend.
Something I liked in the film was presenting Bennett as a double character: as the writer that experiences life and as the writer that only writes, watches everyone from the distance and thinks out loud. It is like having a never-ending conversation with your non-existent twin. This resource works pretty well because it is more visual than the typical voice over.
Although the story doesn’t give us a direct critique about homeless people, it invites us to change our perspectives about them. Not every homeless person ends up like that because of a dysfunctional family or drugs addiction. Some of them had a wonderful and promising life but because of a bad decision or a disgraceful incident, their lives changed for the bad like happened to Miss Shepherd, who was an educated woman and a very talented pianist.
I would have added more scenes of Bennett’s relationship with his mother to understand his motivation of using her in his work. He clearly says he has something with old ladies but why is that? Did she traumatize him when he was a child? Was he closer to her than with his dad? Did she influence him in some way? The story of Lady in the Van is fascinating but I wish I could have seen why Bennett was keen on writing about old ladies.
After dealing and living with Miss Shepherd for 15 years, Bennett realises that some of the best stories happen when you get out of your comfort zone and try something new. He didn’t want to be friends with a homeless woman because he didn’t imagine that relationship would help him to become a more empathetic and kinder person and to conceive new ideas to write about. That is to say that every experience or person you meet in life could be the start of a great story as well as the start of an unforgettable friendship. You never know.