Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 11:32 am | Fair 71º


Cinema in Focus: ‘The Lady in the Van’

3 Stars — Thoughtful

The “mostly true story” of Margaret Fairchild is a thoughtful study of devotion, guilt, aging and homelessness. A memoir of an actual relationship between playwright Alan Bennett and an eccentric older woman who introduces herself as Mary Shepherd, The Lady in the Van is a quirky cinematic comedy of an award-winning British play.

For added veracity Bennett himself makes a cameo appearance near the end.

The strength of the film is the decision to cast Maggie Smith not only in the original theatrical presentation, in the BBC Radio version and also in this film. Equally strong is Alex Jennings as Bennett’s dual character.

Both for humor and effect, Bennett wrote the play in which he bifurcates himself into the person who lives a real life and the writer who uses that life as material for his plays.

Struggling with his lack of boundaries and passive personality, Bennett is masterfully manipulated by Shepherd into allowing her to park her van in his driveway for “a few months.” These months turned into 15 years of relationship, which is as remarkable as it is disturbing. It is this conflicted relationship mirroring Bennett’s relationship with his own mother that reveals their and our humanity.

A rich variety of moral and social issues are presented but without commentary. The more obvious is the dismissive attitude of the rich Londoners toward an elderly woman living in a van in front of their posh homes. Using bags to relieve herself, they try to relieve their guilt at not giving any real help by giving her little gifts for Christmas — gifts she appropriately dismisses as she accepts them.

Similarly, Bennett invites her to move her van onto his driveway not because he cares about her, as he explains to the social worker, but simply out of curiosity and fodder for the future play he could write on her life. A motive that is fulfilled by writing the story we are now viewing.

Perhaps the most disturbing spiritual issue becomes known as we discover that Shepherd was once a devoted nun in a very strict convent. An accomplished musician whose very soul was fed by her gift, she admits to her confessor that she finds it easier to play her music than to pray to God. This causes her to be ordered to surrender her music and focus on prayer. This false dichotomy unraveled her soul.

The gifts we have that nourish us is a form of prayer and service to God. To pit one against the other was not only unnecessary, but cruel and destructive.

There are other themes focusing on guilt and forgiveness that are pervasive and informative, but we won’t spoil these parts of the story.

A thoughtful, quirky and fully British tale, The Lady in the Van is a worthy addition to understanding ourselves and those who are caught in the struggle of homeless life.


» When you have the opportunity to interact with a person whose life involves living in their car or on the streets, how do you engage or avoid them? Why do you respond as you do?

» The guilt that permeated the real Miss Fairchild was what drove her into homeless seclusion. How often do you think guilt creates a self-imposed prison? How do you keep this from happening in your own life?

» Even as Bennett allowed Miss Fairchild to put her van in his driveway, he offered neither a bedroom nor a bathroom. Would you have done so? Why or why not?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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