The Lady in the Van showcases what living the Golden Rule can look like in today’s society. Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) lives in her van parked on a street in Camden Town in North London. To stay within the law, she moves up and down the street at regular intervals and annoys the residents on a consistent basis. They tolerate her and even show her small kindnesses for which she offers no thanks. Then one person, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), against the advice of his neighbors, allows her to park the van in his driveway for a few months until she sorts things out. She stays for 15 years.
If it weren’t true, who would believe it?
Bennett works as a playwright yet he feels conflicted about using people he knows as material for his plays. His writer’s instinct is fascinated by Miss Shepherd but he feels guilty about letting her live in the squalid conditions of the van, calling the smell that emanates from it an “odiferous concerto.” The film uses the contrived convention of splitting Mr. Bennett into two people, both played by Jennings. One is his writer self who sits at his desk contemplating Miss Shepherd as fodder for his next play. The other is his self that lives everyday life, takes care of his ailing mother, and interacts with Miss Shepherd. The two have conversations about what should be done.
Giving without expecting reward.
Miss Shepherd herself is a bit mysterious. Bennett gathers glimpses of her past life in little conversations with her. She’s an intelligent woman but ended up homeless. She prays with great intensity like she’s carrying a huge burden. When a strange guy (Jim Broadbent) shows up at night pounding on the van, Mr. Bennett feels compelled to look out for Miss Shepherd. He hates the smell from the feces she leaves behind but he cleans up after her with minimal complaining. The respect he shows her is edifying, especially because she’s a nasty old hag, embodying what the concept of “ill-mannered” means.
A wonderfully heartfelt performance by Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd keeps this film moving, enabling us to like and respect a person who might otherwise be met with indifference or disgust. The film, billed at the beginning as “a mostly true story,” draws its material from Bennett’s memoir. Bennett’s quiet homosexuality does not overshadow the goodness he shows to Miss Shepherd for years. He is truly an example of what “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” means. Upon Miss Shepherd’s death, Bennett discovers the burden under which she has been living.
Respect and Kindness - Always
Pope Francis consistently urges followers of Jesus to be mindful of the least of our brothers and sisters in society. There are many in needs in our world. Each of us must discern how God might be calling us to help his most vulnerable children. It may not be letting a homeless old lady park her van in our driveway but The Lady in the Van shows us that respect and kindness is always the right way to go.