HOW A WRITER FOUND HIMSELF IN HIS INTERACTIONS WITH SOMEONE ELSE
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13; Grade: B+
As a writer-critic, I embark on this examination of the new release from Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys”), produced from a script by Alan Bennett, based on his own memoir detailing his experiences with a transient woman who called herself Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) who parked her van in his driveway and lived out of it over the course of 15 years, with a heightened open-minded approach.
Bennett, played in the film by Alex Jennings, is a novel and marvelous creation. He is a writer through and through, a man living so completely inside his own head, so distinctly of two minds that he literally appears throughout the film as two people. He is, at once, a timid man navigating tricky everyday encounters with those around him. This version of Bennett suffers under the emotional weight of an unbalanced relationship with his aging mother (Gwen Taylor), a series of anonymous closeted one-night stands and a desire to keep his neighbors (and the larger world) at bay, despite the fact that his writing exclusively mines his interpersonal exchanges. The other Bennett is the writer sitting at his desk, watching and recording what takes place, offering dry commentary, always from a careful remove, but not necessarily with truly meaningful (impactful) insight—never pointed enough to generate action or inspire revolutionary or life-altering change.
Those of us who spend as much time at our desks or hiding, sometimes in plain sight, behind our laptops in coffee shops, will have an innate affinity, an instant rapport with the idea of both Bennetts. The face and body interacting with the world, the one typically bound up behind his sweater vests and conservative ties, is a sure and easy stereotype, familiar, even though we might wish to disavow any association with this image. Although, to be fair, the writer is not much better or looser, really, rarely wandering too far from his desk in the writing room, an almost mirror-image, remarkable mainly for the lack of a tie-noose around his neck.
Misters Bennetts are in need of shaking up, so the arrival of Miss Shepherd has all the hallmarks of a routine plot device, but the narrative form has been distorted by introducing the audience to her first, intending to remind or confirm some notion that this story is about her. We see a vaguely younger iteration of her, behind the wheel of a van, screeching away from an intersection with an unmarked car in hot pursuit. She makes a swift evasive maneuver, escaping her tail, and it is only at this point that we see her bloody and cracked windshield, evidence of an accident, setting her up as a fugitive from justice.
Years later—time in Hytner’s rendering of this story is decidedly indeterminate, filled with short episodic highlights that never draw into sharp relief—Miss Shepherd is a fixture of a suburban London neighborhood, a highly visible homeless woman accepted, as much as possible, due to liberal guilt, allowed to drift up and down the block, sheltered in a fashion from the harsher authorities. Yet, she is also an object of gossip, a figure no one really takes the time to get to know; instead, an urban legend that is propped up.
When she takes a liking to Bennett, the new kid on the block, he cannot fend off either the attention of the inquiring neighbors who seem content pushing her onto him or Miss Shepherd herself, the cantankerous old woman who reminds him, and eventually becomes a less than perfect mirror-image of his own mother. Smith invests her with all the character anyone—either in the narrative or outside, watching—could hope for, fully embodying her spirited irascible nature, the Catholic guilt that dogs her, the brief moments of joy and release, which emerge when she’s painting her van or caught up in musical reveries.
Such a dominating turn could easily knock the whole affair off-kilter, which it nearly has, when you consider the early awards attention Smith garnered during the film’s fall festival run and its ensuing release, but Smith has merely provided a game energy and playful spunk. The heart and soul of “The Lady in the Van” always was Bennett. It is his memoir, and in the end, he is the character who evolves the most, in sly and damn-near imperceptible ways. He even says as much, towards the end, when he points out—to himself—that you (the writer) don’t put yourself in what you write so much as you find yourself in the story. Hytner finds a sterling example of a divided man who merges into a whole figure, likely for the first time, over the course of 15 years, and it is a quiet and quite simple revelation.