‘The Lady in the Van’ A Triumph of Human Dignity (FILM REVIEW)


The homeless problem becomes a lot easier to manage when you choose to ignore it. We seem to do a remarkable job with this head in the sand philosophy when it comes to dealing with the destitute—the day becomes significantly more manageable when you turn your head to avoid eye contact with the dirty looking scoundrel holding a sign on the street corner or at heavily trafficked stop lights. That might sound judgmental, and I’m certainly not saying that everyone does this 100% of the time. We’ve all, at some point, flipped a quarter into a beggar’s cup or handed over the errant dollar to a person in need. Just as we’ve all kept our heads low to pretend as though we didn’t see the needy person as we walk by.

Over time, the homeless in our communities become little more than a part of the scenery. We no longer notice them because they’re always just there. Rarely does one find themselves in the position to get to know the homeless in their midst—to learn about the human beyond the label, to find the dignity beneath the dirt. It’s this dynamic that is explored in The Lady in the Van.

This “mostly true story” recounts a period in the life of British writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) who moved to the London borough of Camden Town in the 70’s. While much of life on his quiet street was about what one might expect from suburban living, the neighborhood was also home to the eccentric Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) who lived out of a busted old van she kept parked on the street. As regulations and situations began to change, and her condition began to deteriorate, the loveable old woman found herself in need of a more permanent place to park. Bennett, against his better judgment, agreed to allow Miss Shepherd to park her van in his driveway for a few months while she worked on a better solution. Much to his surprise, those few months morphed into fifteen years.

Adapted by Bennett himself, from his memoirs recalling the period, and later a play, The Lady in the Van deftly avoids the trappings of your basic Odd Couple conceit to become a true meditation on modern life and the discovery of worth even among those society might prefer to cast off and ignore. One would have to actively try, hard, not to fall under its spell, and even then the jaded walls of cynicism would most likely crumble beneath the barrage of charm and wit that permeates the work, a testament to Bennett’s powerful voice as a writer.

Filled with dry wit and sheer humanity, Bennett’s script moves back and forth from heartbreakingly poignant to heartwarmingly hilariously, often in the same scene. Miss Shepherd’s story unfolds slowly, told from the perspective of Bennett, who begrudgingly learns to accept the old eccentric’s presence over the months and years of their acquaintance. The two never quite become friends as such, but rather they remain at arm’s length, tolerating each other’s presence in a friendly sort of way.

Yet through Bennett’s eyes we see how a life might unfold in ways that are tragic and, in some ways, completely out of one’s control. Whether we want to admit it or not, a vast majority of us are one or two bad things away from having our lives completely upended, changed forever. So it is with Miss Shepherd, and through her we gain a new empathy for those whose eyes we might otherwise avoid.

Jennings and Smith are ever delightful, sharing a banter that walks the line between malicious contempt and genuine affection without ever crossing the border into either territory. The two play off each other’s strengths, forcing each other to reach higher and higher in an ever escalating battle of wit that never ceases to amuse and please.

The ultimate achievement, however, is the showcasing of the dignity of the least among us. We’ve all a story to tell, and you never quite know how a person got to the place they’re at. All the preparation in the world won’t protect from the cruel hand of dumb luck and circumstance. The tiniest decision can snowball, laying waste to the best laid plans and sending your life into a spiral of despair. Regardless, humanity will ever be the equalizer. The least of us can be the best of us, as can the highest of us be the worst. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind, and The Lady in the Van delivers it impressively.

The Lady in the Van is now playing in limited release.

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