A closer look at… The Lady in the Van

© Sony, 2015.
© Sony, 2015.

This is a level 2 guide, suitable for moderately experienced groups.
The Lady in the Van is rated 12A for infrequent strong language.

Warning: Contains plot spoilers

The Scoop – A film with a big heart but not without bite,  The Lady in the Van is a funny and touching showcase for its leads.

In a Camden suburb, one person disrupts the comings and goings of the comfortable, middle-class residents. She is Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), a chaotic force of nature whose personality is as overpowering as the smell inside the van where she lives. When playwright and actor Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moves into the neighbourhood, he makes the mistake of offering her a little sympathy – and so begins a peculiar relationship which will span the next fifteen years.

To the bewilderment of everyone around him, Alan allows Miss Shepherd to park her van on his driveway, becoming a permanent part of his life. Is this a cynical attempt at getting material for his writing, a symptom of his guilt around his relationship with his mother (Gwen Taylor), or a genuine act of kindness? Alan isn’t sure. And whatever the truth, Miss Shepherd isn’t going anywhere.

I was looking after myself, Miss Shepherd only incidentally; kindness didn’t really come into it. – Alan Bennett

Nobody will ever understand why she ended up like that – and how she could live like that I just don’t know. It was alarming even to be doing it as briefly as I did. – Maggie Smith

Our Take

I have never been in a daytime screening so crowded as the one I attended for Lady in the Van. The cinema was packed with older people – the film proved so popular with this demographic, in fact, that I had to abandon an attempt to get into an earlier showing after seeing a queue that went out of the cinema doors and around the corner. This audience laughed the whole way through – as did I – and there were definitely a few tears in evidence when the lights came up.

Maggie Smith is of course a legend, and the chance to see her on top cantankerous form is probably one of the main reasons why people are flooding to see this film in its opening week. But I was just as interested in, and moved by, Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Or rather, Alan Bennetts: he plays two versions of the playwright as Bennett argues with himself about his own decisions and motives. It’s a clever and honest way of dramatising the tension between making art and living life – and the difficulty of knowing why, or even whether, we are really doing something good.

Would I have been crazy about Miss Shepherd living directly outside my house? I’m afraid and ashamed to say that I wouldn’t have been. – Director Nicholas Hytner

2015, THE LADY IN THE VAN
© Sony, 2015.

Dig Deeper

  • Did you enjoy the film, and why or why not? What were some of its most moving or memorable moments for you?
  • How did you react to the character of Miss Shepherd? What did Maggie Smith bring to the role, and how does Miss Shepherd compare to other well-known characters she has played? What did you make of the revelations from the character’s past, and did these change the way you saw her?
  • How did you react to the character of Alan Bennett, in both his incarnations? What do you think his real motives were for letting Miss Shepherd stay? How is he changed by his association with her?

There is the self who does the writing, and the self who does the living. – Alan Bennett

  • How does the film portray Alan’s Camden neighbourhood and the people who live there? Could you identify with their reactions to Miss Shepherd? What do we mean when we talk about middle class guilt, and what happens if someone doesn’t need or appreciate our ‘good deeds’?
  • How does the film explore the tension between making art and living life? In your view, is it necessary for writers and artists to have exciting or eventful lives in order to say anything important?
  • What moral questions does Alan face as he tells Miss Shepherd’s story? Is her story really his to tell? What kind of trust do we place in a writer when we read or watch a ‘true story’, and at what point does invention become deception?

I’m just raw material to you. – Alan’s mum

  • What role has religion played in Miss Shepherd’s life? According to the film, has her Catholicism primarily been a help or a hindrance to her? In your view, is religion more likely to be an oppressive or a liberating force, and why?
  • Do you think you could have let Miss Shepherd stay, and why or why not? What does the film have to say about what it really means to care for someone, or to live in a community? To what extent are we responsible for those around us, whoever they happen to be?

I’m not her keeper. – Alan Bennett

© Sony, 2015.
© Sony, 2015.

Read More

Maggie Smith: ‘It would frighten people if I were nice’

Nicholas Hytner: ‘I felt so out-of-place making American movies’

Alan Bennett’s Diary: The Lady in the Van

Published by

Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at www.damarismedia.com Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.