The Lady in the Van. A film by Nicholas Hytner. With Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Alex Jennings.
I’m as much a fan of oldster movies as anyone—they’re about me, after all—and, like everyone else in the world, I love Maggie Smith. I especially like her as the outraged Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, though the series has disappointed me in this final season. But I must admit that when I first saw the trailer for this film—after I had just seen the second of the Marigold Hotel movies—I thought, Maggie Smith as another cranky old woman? I figured the filmmakers were trying to capitalize on her recent fame, to see if they could wring one more role out of her. She was great as an aristocrat! Now let’s see her as a bag lady!
Actually, the film is based on a play that was on the London stage in 1999, long before Downton. The director, Nicholas Hytner, has brought Alan Bennett plays to the screen before, including the wonderful The History Boys. It’s also true that Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is not just another cranky old lady. There’s a depth to her character, and subtlety to her portrayal, that I haven’t found in other recent Maggie Smith roles. This is the finest piece of acting I’ve seen her do in years.
The play is based on something that actually happened to Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) when he was a young man. He is living in a slightly dicey London neighborhood—a place that a young playwright could afford—when he meets a homeless woman who lives in a van and parks on his street. The van is a wreck, the woman slightly nuts, and the neighbors worry about where she’s going to park, partly because she puts up with no noise, especially music, partly because the van is such a wreck, and not terribly hygenic. In that situation, Bennett does an extraordinarily kind thing, allowing the old woman to park in his driveway. He expects, at the beginning, that she will stay for a few months. She stays for fifteen years.
The novel conceit of the script—this could have fallen completely flat, but I thought it worked well—is that Bennett splits himself into two people, the writer who sits at his desk all day, and the man who goes out and lives in the world. They banter back and forth. We essentially hear Bennett talking to himself, but the whole thing never seems contrived. The two men are related, but they’re not the same.
Both are somewhat cynical, and pooh pooh the idea that Bennett is some kind of saint, but he really did a wonderful thing for this woman, and allows her to stay even when, after years, there is all kinds of detritus in his driveway, including bags of urine and poop. He treats her as a human being. I suspect that’s what most crazy people need.
When I was an undergraduate at Duke, there was a nutty old man named Nurmi—that’s what everyone called him, after the distance runner Paavo Nurmi—who was a campus character. The rumor was that he had once been a classics professor, and he still left around notices advertising himself as a tutor in classical languages. He wasn’t homeless, but hung around campus all day. Lots of people talked to him. Lots of people made fun of him. The way you treated Nurmu was a litmus test for what kind of person you were.
He was obsessed with time. He carried around three or four pocket watches, and knew to the second how close each one was to having the correct time (or so he said). He fervently believed—this was his major social issue—that Daylight Savings Time was wrong, because it was the incorrect time. He often asked people their opinion on the matter.
He also believed he was a world class runner, at age 75 or whatever he was. Sometimes on the quad he would race a football player in what he thought was a hundred yard dash, and whoever it was would always let him win. People snapped their stop watches in world record time. He bragged about people he’d beaten, times he had run. He was out there in street clothes, running pretty fast, but not all that fast, for a guy his age.
His other obsession was death. He started several conversations with me (after he had asked me my opinion of daylight savings time) by saying, “You know, there was once a time, I know this was silly, and you probably won’t believe it, but there was once a time when I was actually afraid of dying.” I, who was plenty afraid of dying, still am, for that matter, would nod in sympathy. “Do you believe that?” he’d say.
Once, as we were riding between campuses on a campus bus, he leaned very close, a wild look in his eye, and told me that when he was a young man, he didn’t believe that women defecated. He just didn’t think they would do such a thing. No shit, I should have said, but didn’t. I nodded politely, as I did to his fears about death.
The rumor was that he’d had a brother who was also a professor, and that the man had died an untimely death. Or maybe killed himself; I don’t remember now. There had been some trauma that had put Nurmi (whose real name, as he said in his tutorial notices, was W.O. Shears) over the edge. He’d once been an academic, which meant he was pretty nutty to start with. But then something happened, and he became a crazy-eyed wandering old man, who talked of nothing but time, and death, and, occasionally, the purity of women.
Miss Shepherd, in the play, has a similarly mysterious past. We hear early on that she was a nun, at a nunnery that is still there on the street. Bennett—most definitely a non-believer—goes and asks about that. There is also some weird connection to music: it isn’t noise in general that she objects to, but any playing of music. She is obviously religious, and fearful; we see the fear in her eyes on more than one occasion. And she has a traumatic incident in her past; the film lets us know that in the first scene. We eventually meet a family member who tells us some incidents from her life. But nothing explains why she is the way he is. Lots of people go through traumatic incidents. Not everybody goes off the deep end.
There’s a scene toward the end of the film where Miss Shepherd goes to an adult day care center, gets cleaned up, and in some way revisits her past. I wasn’t sure how much of the scene was meant to be real, how much fantasy. But in that sequence in particular, that miraculous transformation, Maggie Smith showed a subtlety that only a great actress could give us. There aren’t many actresses who would make themselves as vulnerable as this film makes her.
God bless the woman, as my wife would say. She’s a great actress still.
 In a classic Sixties moment, I was sitting at lunch with a couple of strung out hippies when Nurmi came up and polled us on the question. “I believe that time is an artificial concept,” the first guy said. Nurmi didn’t miss a beat. “You’re neutral,” he said.
 Paavo Nurmi was famous as a distance runner, not a sprinter. But he paced himself by carrying, and glancing at, the same kind of pocket watch that Nurmi carried around campus. Who gave him this nickname I don’t know, but there was a kind of genius to it.
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