The Lady In the Van

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 21, 2016 in / No Comments


To derive humor from a sad story is an achievement, particularly when that story happens to be true. Playwright Alan Bennett lived this tale, and his oft-collaborator/director Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys”) gives us the vicarious pleasure of getting to know the odd Mary Shepherd–a.k.a. Margaret Fairchild–an elderly woman who squatted in Bennett’s driveway for fifteen years (a few times literally, but I’ll get to that in a moment). Miss Shepherd is inhabited by Downton Abbey matriarch Maggie Smith, with every bit the attitude of a duchess. Her palace is a beat up old van, liberally coated in bright yellow house paint. The folks of Camden Town, Bennett’s affluent London suburb, are generally good people, but they’d prefer that the woman and her roving  eyesore find some other curbside to keep warm. But Miss Shepherd’s decrepit and lugubrious appearance is deceptive, and her ability to impose her will rivals that of Yoda, as she finagles her way onto Bennett’s property. It’s not long before he’s providing Lady-in-the-Van-poster-2basic utilities and cleaning her feces off the side of his waste bins (I could imagine that his play inspired the Stiller/Barrymore comedy “Duplex”). “The Lady in the Van” is a semi-autobiographical period piece that is as much self-reflection as it is a study of the titular vagabond. Brilliant actor Alex Jennings plays Bennett in a manner of split consciousness—the man writing the story and the one living it, the latter of whom occasionally crosses the time-space continuum for a quick fact-check—as the mildly tortured narrator recalls with an almost wistful disdain how he came to know his unlikely muse in the early ‘70s.  It is comic poetry that Jennings delivers with such a rich eloquence that it could make a dog fart sound sophisticated. His irritation ever so slightly overshadowed by his fascination, Bennett comes to find that the woman’s real name is Margaret Fairchild, a woman on the lam after a hit-and-run.  Her amusing little idiosyncrasies – intolerance of music, for one — reveal themselves to be childhood trauma; her paranoia, a constant fear of being arrested (Jim Broadbent plays a pursuing investigator). Bennett, himself, does not have a particularly deep connection with his own mother (Gwen Taylor), a relationship that tempers his sardonic veneer and gives the character and his relationship with Shepherd some depth. “The Lady in the Van” has  a wry Brit-wit that comes off like a cross between Bill Bryson and Edgar Wright, which the amazing Maggie Smith plays to, while fully realizing the tragedy of her character.

Opens in Washington, DC on Friday January 22nd

— M. Parsons


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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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