The Lady in the Van

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Maggie Smith’s new film, The Lady in the Van, is not for the faint of heart.  Briefly, it is about an older woman with mental health challenges whose luck at being born in England means that the social services supporting her are numerous.  Promoted as a comedy, the redoubtable Ms Smith’s film is indeed funny.  It is also tragic, poignantly so, and able to stir terrors regarding homelessness, mental illness, and the horrifying cruelty of the Catholic Church.  In the face of Spotlight‘s best picture win at the 2016 Academy Awards, this smaller film barely makes a ripple in the cultural pond.  However, the wrong this film does expose, while not sexual abuse, involves unforgettable psychic abuse.

 The Triumph of Kindness

The story is told from the point(s) of view of author and memoirist Alan Bennett, who skillfully divides his perspective into two complementary halves – the bookish, standoffish author and the more engaged neighbour and participant in the life of his very interesting Camden Town street.  The lady in the van, also known as Miss Shepherd, Mary Shepherd, or Miss S, is slowly revealed to be one of life’s more serious casualties.  “Loving music more than prayer,” the promising pianist is forbidden to play by nuns in charge of her novitiate training when she is young.  While the film never states this explicitly, viewers readily see the psychic violence done to her soul by this edict against her passion for her art.

Alan Bennett, the person in whose drive the lady in the van parks, goes a long way in making up for this psychic cruelty even while knowing nothing about it.  Learning of her musical past after her death in 1989, he then pieces her story together and offers it to the world.  While she is alive, he does not offer friendship to the lady in the van so much as concern for her well being and, consequently, physical refuge in the off-street parking at the front of his house.  Their unusual relationship continues for some fifteen years.  Considering the lady in the van’s proclivities to filth and abrupt, often foul-mouthed exchanges with passersby, his kindness is transcendent.

The Horrors of Guilt

A second tragedy further complicates Miss S’s psychology.  In her life before parking in Bennett’s drive, she is involved in an automobile accident and believes she is responsible for the death of a young man.  Having left the scene of the accident, she is wracked with guilt and falls prey to an unscrupulous police officer who uses her vulnerability and naivety to blackmail her.  Whether this character is entirely fictional is not made clear, but the accident itself is real enough.  Already condemned by the church for her passion for the piano, our van lady is further crippled by the belief that she has killed someone.  She has of course, but her victim is not the young man of the road accident; rather, it is her young self that she has killed, the girl who longs to play the piano but who is persuaded to betray her gift by the Catholic church’s perverse notion of sin.

Tapping in the Theatre

Should you see the film and find that your fears and rage regarding homelessness and mental illness are triggered by The Lady in the Van, you may find relief by gently tapping on the finger points as you respond emotionally to Miss Shepherd’s story.  It is a tribute to the film’s emotional depth that we feel as deeply as we do, for Alan Bennett as well as for Miss S.  Seldom in our ageist culture do we see an older woman as vulnerable as she portrayed as respectfully as we do in this film.  It is a landmark offering, one that renders Agape – the very highest form of Love – to the same degree as absurdity.  In hearing and seeing this story, may we all find a healing sympathy that puts old ghosts to rest.

Until next week



Jane Buchan, MA, AAMET Advanced Practitioner,, 802-533-9277

Jane is a Learning Coach specializing in neutralizing cultural age, gender, and race constructs to support learners of every age.  To engage her coaching services, please contact Jane by phone (802) 533-9277 or email,  Be sure to put Coaching Query in the subject line.