The Importance of Being Elderly: Maggie Smith Stuns in The Lady in the Van

Image Credit – From The Lady in the Van by BBC Films

The Lady in the Van ‘s BFI London Film Festival premiere comes a week after new figures revealed that more than half  a million adults are missing out on care due to government welfare cuts.

I expected the film to entertain me – after all, it’s written by Alan Bennett (of The History Boys fame) and stars the brilliant Dame Maggie Smith. However, I didn’t expect the film to have such an emotional impact.

Adapted from Bennett’s 1999 play of the same name, The Lady in the Van is the “mostly true story” of Bennett’s relationship with Mary Shepherd, an elderly, homeless oddball whose van was encamped on the playwright’s driveway in Camden, London over a period of fifteen years.

Some criticism has been levelled at the film for its use of drama. For the most part, the film is a wonderfully whimsical comedy, with a predictably perfect performance by Smith. But what, to me, truly elevated the film was its engagement with issues of homelessness and old age.

Last year, the Institute of Economic Affairs labelled the government’s welfare spending a “debt timebomb”, suggesting that to solve the problem the government needed a “fundamental reform of pension and healthcare provision”. And the Lady in the Van reminded me of just how important welfare for the elderly and homeless is.

Over the past year, both of my elderly parents have relied heavily upon the NHS – I have to admit, I haven’t been particularly impressed. However, the movie alerted me to the plight of even the most impolite senior citizen.

Many of us are guilty of disregarding the aged and impoverished, despite campaigns by various charities attempting to encourage us to think about the loneliness of both situations. The multi-organisation Campaign for Loneliness claims that nearly one million over-65s feel alone and isolated.

In The Lady in the Van, Smith’s character is both verbally and physically abused. There were only a few of these moments on-screen, but they were some of the most important.

Vulnerable people like the old and mentally ill Miss Shepard are undoubtedly more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. And yet, most of us avoid such people due to a momentary sense of fear, or perhaps embarrassment.

In the film, Bennett’s arc compellingly exposes a man who transitions from perspectives. The begin with, Bennett sees Smith’s character as just a homeless old woman. Society has all but dehumanized her, and she is nothing but a nuisance to all.

But as the story unfolds, Bennett sheds this view, coming to appreciate that Miss Shepherd has, like anyone, a complex and rich history. She deserves dignity and care, things all too often missing from many people’s final years.

The Lady in the Van is one of those rare comedies that, after all the laughter, makes you pause to consider the real world. It is, without a doubt, one of the most affecting comedies I’ve seen all year.

The Lady in the Van is set for release in the UK on November 13th 2015.

Image Credit – From The Lady in the Van by BBC Films

J. C. Servante

J. C. Servante

Freelance writer, reviewer and blogger. Politically speculative. Can be found at donkeyokay.com

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