Review: 'The Lady in the Van' Starring Dame Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings

When I was a graduate student, there was a homeless lady in New Haven.  Well, there were a lot of them, actually, despite the town's efforts to hide them from the well-off parents of the school's undergraduate student body.  But there was one, in particular, who people called "The Shakespeare Lady".

You'd usually see her somewhere along Whitney Avenue, maybe at the corner with Grove Street, or on the small side-road of Audubon Street.  She'd call out to the passers-by, asking to recite something from Shakespeare for them, and maybe get a donation.  She'd seem like she was doing something more than just panhandling, that way.  Most people would just assume she'd memorized a bit of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, or maybe Hamlet's famous soliloquy.  I certainly did, until my advisor introduced me to Margaret Holloway.

Margaret had attended Bennington College on scholarship, and gone on to earn her MFA in directing at the Yale School of Drama, twenty years before I knew her.  But then mental health issues led to drug problems; even as she got clean, the havoc they wreaked on her life made it all but impossible to recover.  She made great strides, though, while I knew her, and last I heard she was still okay.  I hope she still is.

I found myself thinking about Margaret a lot as I watched The Lady in the Van, Alan Bennett's (surrogate-Bennett regular Alex Jennings) memoir-turned-play-turned-film about his experiences with Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith).  He met her in the 1970s, already a fixture of the gentrifying Camden neighborhood he moved into.  And while he claims to be as disdainful of her as the worst of his neighbors, when she finds herself in a tight spot he suggests she temporarily park her van in the driveway he isn't using anyway, where she then stayed for fifteen years.

Of course, there's more to the story than that.  Miss Shepherd had a life before she was the crazy old lady in her haphazardly-painted Bedford van.  And even once she's in the van, there's a whole living breathing person hidden away inside that hard exterior.  Richard Gere may have locked down the travails of homelessness in the under-appreciated Time out of Mind, but Dame Maggie embodies the humanity of this unappreciated woman in a way that nobody else could.

In its way, that's what sets The Lady in the Van apart from most other films about homeless people.  Calls for better social services are all well and good, and by all means I support improving them.  But all too often our concern for homeless people is marked by a distinct "othering".  That is, we are concerned because it's such a shame what happens To Them, the others over there.  The irony is especially acute in America, so marked lately by the idea that we should never take from the rich because we may one day become rich ourselves, that we never consider what might happen if one day we may be poor.

This othering is embedded in how we write and talk about the issue.  We speak of "the homeless", making indigence their essential trait rather than one unfortunate fact about them.  And this leads on to "the homeless problem", rather than "the homelessness problem", as if the people themselves are the problem.  That's certainly how both town and gown in New Haven viewed people like Margaret Holloway.

But not everyone has the chance to know someone like Margaret, even to the little extent that I did.  Many of the sort who will seek out The Lady in the Van have constructed nice, clean enclaves that isolate them from ever having to come face to face with the human reality of homelessness.  Even some of Bennett's neighbors do all they can to avoid Miss Shepherd, and Bennett himself insists to a social worker that despite offering his driveway he is not her caretaker.  For all our high-minded, compassionate liberalism, we still look away when brought face to face with someone in her situation.  Bennett's story implores us not to forget that these are people with lives as complicated and meaningful as any of ours.

Rating: 4 out of 5