Yes, I’ve used clickbait, possibly. I’d actually identify it as the general gist of this post, or the tl:dr: CARS! WOMEN! HISTORY! But, you know, you could stick around for the whole post to see just what I have to say on the matter.
I don’t watch much film. I don’t have the patience for it. Perhaps, my brain has been ruined by technology. Nope. That’s not true. I’ve never really enjoyed just watching television or film. I get annoyed really easily. I can read for hours, yessir, but put me in front of the television and it had better be The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter for me to sit put, and, even then, I get antsy. I just find it really difficult to pay attention, I usually multi-task when I watch films. I’ll bake, or I’ll do my nails, or do a face mask. Once, I popped blisters from a really bad sun burn I had whilst watching a Bollywood film. I needed the longest film Netflix would offer, so I could happily distracted from the pain that I got when I couldn’t stop reading. Also, I tend to find Bollywood films more engaging, if only for the music. I love music, but it has to be just right. Music affects my mood, quite easily. Oh, I’m going off topic.
The point is, if you were to ask me what my favourite film of all time is, unfortunately, I could not point to a well-developed vocabulary of filmic experience and repertoire. I’m sorry, it’s not my forte. But, I’ve recently altered my stance on this. I think after suffering from anxiety that probably has a lot to do with too much caffeine consumption, I started looking for media that soothed me rather than aggravated me. And, I found it, without realizing I had. The Lady in the Van, I proudly identify as, if not my favourite film, one of the best films I’ve seen. I don’t identify it as a favourite because it doesn’t have the same emotional response from me, like my five-year-old self clutching a handful of cantaloupe and screaming to the fruit gods about how this is my FAVOURITE FRUIT! But, I do, don’t get me wrong, love this film.
When I first saw it, I didn’t need much convincing that it was worth my time. Dame Maggie Smith plays Miss Shepherd, Margaret, or was that Mary, Shepherd. The film is a lightly fictionalized account with elements of magical realism of the author’s, that is, Alan Bennett’s, relationship with Miss Shepherd. If you don’t know the story, look it up. The film was based on a play of the same name, but I do recommend the film, too. The film contains two manifestations of Alan, the author’s ego and the man-in-the-world: the author is the more snippy and curt of the two, the man-in-the-world is proudly, Britishly timid. He moves into Camden Town, in London, after the success of his writing and plays. The street upon which he lives has a lady in a van. Every so often she moves from house to house. That is, until new zoning laws require that she move the van. Miss Shepherd hints that a driveway, such as the one Alan has, would be the perfect solution. Alan offers Miss Shepherd the space, and she accepts suggesting that it won’t inconvenience her too much, possibly.
So, for fifteen years, she lives in his drive. She loves to paint all of her vehicles bright yellow with a pot-cleaner. She may be homeless, but she has a wealthy patron who gifts her cars. She receives a new van at one point, quickly painted ‘custard’ yellow, and the three-wheeler that joins the canary colour scheme. And, although our narrator is Alan, the story is about Miss Shepherd. We learn from one of the neighbours that she was a nun and during the war she was an ambulance driver during the blackouts. She knows London very well. She cannot stand music. We learn that she was a very gifted pianist, that was told by nuns that playing was a temptation from the devil. So, through negative associations, she has put music behind her. But make no mistake, music is a big part of the film. She went to Paris as a young woman to study under a virtuoso pianist. She was an artist. She was a traveller. She spoke fluent French. She was a religious woman. She was a nun, twice over. She was forcibly made to leave because she was strong-willed. She feared, for over half of her life, that she killed a young man, who crashed into her van. The film leads us to the conclusion that her homelessness was a self-prescribed, earthly purgatory for this particular sin (a sin that did not belong to her, but she feared it did).
Throughout the film, Alan denies that he is her carer. Rather, he identifies himself as her neighbour. He does her kindly acts, like offering her the drive, or encouraging her to walk more for energy, check in on her, ensure that she is left alone by ruffians or dubious police characters. But, in a rather political stance, he is not her carer. He does not behave as though her presence is a burden, aside from when her after-dinners are left in his path to trod on. But by not taking her on as a burden, she maintains her independence. She is not in the possession of a man, being carefully minded.
The end of the film reveals a blue plaque being places on the side of Alan’s house to mark where she lived. His house becomes her house. It becomes, in a religious sort of way, a site of pilgrimage. His house loses meaning as the place where he lives, where his economic affluence and male privilege afforded him a right to live, and it takes on the meaning of recalling and reiterating her right to that space, too. This film is important because it writes Margaret Shepherd’s history, and it does so unapologetically. Well, Miss Shepherd seems like the sort to be unapologetic about her right to space, and all women and marginalized peoples need that kind of role model. Of course, Maggie Smith brings her award-winning acting to the role.
Think about the importance of this film. The person about whom we are encouraged to wonder and care about, if not for, is an older woman. We are told that her life and its path is and was meaningful. She is not just an old lady in a van, she is a woman with a story and a role in history. Throughout history, women have been written out of existence. One wonders if there were women at some points? But, this film, although it starts to tell the story of Alan Bennett (and he does share some of the story time), the story is the story of a formidable woman.
The camera does not shy away from focusing on Maggie Smith’s face, without conventional make up. She is not glamourized. She is very filthy. She is a person with personhood. She is the subject of the film, not the object of the straight-male gaze. Our star is not young, and this is important, because the camera is teaching us that women are valuable socially. Human beings, as they age, do not become useless or valueless. Their lined faces, their incontinence, their will to live are all important and deserving of space in media and our lives. I have an older dog, and she looks and acts like a puppy, at times. She does have health issues that take a lot of work and often disrupt my sleep. But, in spending time with her, I realize that if humans aged the same way dogs do, without the perception of showing how age marks their physical bodies, we would find them more valuable. We wouldn’t want to put them away in homes and deem them less worthy of life or our time. We wouldn’t be afraid of the mortality they represent. We would see them as alive. We would treat them better. In our society, women don’t have to age much to be regarded as less worthy. Whilst men are valuable silver foxes: the world is their oyster, their adventures are yet to begin at 62; women, at 25, have become dusty on the shelf.
This film contravenes a narrative of shelving women (in binders or not) because their social value has been deemed less than. Indeed, Alan, who narrates the story, only has a story because of this woman. His voice is diminished, is non-existent, without Margaret Shepherd. The film reaffirms the hope I have for the future. The happiness I will feel at being an older woman who has no filter. I hope that by that time I’m held accountable for my filterless nature, and it’s not written off as being an addled old lady. I’ll just smile and say, hey! I’ve been dropping that mike before Yeezy publicly smiled. Ahahahaha. 🙂
A few other things that I love about the film include how happy Margaret is represented at times, in spite of her earthly purgatory. There is a scene where she travels to the seaside, and she eats chips and rides a carousel, where young children are also enjoying themselves. Her enjoyment is echoed and emphasized by the children that go round and round just as she does. I think a clear point is that adults lose some of their child-like joy when they grow up, but when you hit a certain age you wonder why you stopped shoving your face with sweets or cantaloupe, whilst jumping up and down, fists full of fruit, and the fountain of youth dribbling from your mouth.
Alan is gay. This inclusion and representation in the film is also really important. It is coded when he tries to ask an actor to help him decorate his flat, but the actor has a girlfriend. It is clearer when he has young men that leave his flat at night. If you can’t pick up on it, you are triply mocked by Margaret who knowingly *taps nose* says the young men are clearly communists, possibly; by the unknowing housewife who, at a dinner gathering of neighbours, asks aloud when they are going to find Alan a girl–the other neighbours laugh awkwardly; and by the snobbish neighbours that explain to the audience, or each other, that his plays are about him not coming clean (about being gay). But, the social climate doesn’t allow an outright speech act from Alan, that is, until the end of the film, when he has a partner that encourages him to stop arguing with the author-ego and talk to him.
The film ends beautifully, like Raphael’s Transfiguration of Christ, Margaret Shepherd ascends into God’s willing arms. All I can do is smile, because the magical realism complements the stark realities of Margaret’s hard life.
Heaps of love,