We don't see many movies these days, but I was determined to see The Lady in the Van. Maggie Smith is one of my all-time favourite actresses, and I have laughed and cried over Alan Bennett's writing for many years.
The shorts for the movie emphasised its comedic aspects, honing in on Maggie Smith's ridiculous, cavalier, cantankerous attitude to everything, and the witty one liners. Of course, Maggie Smith would sell any movie. Its got to the point now where she only has to raise an eyebrow to get a laugh. (Bill Nighy has a similar effect - watching the shorts of the new movie he is in, 'Dad's Army', I was in stitches every time he appeared, even though he didn't say a word, and did nothing.) I wonder if many modern Maggie Smith fans have seen 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'? - a very un-funny film, as I recall. At turned 80, she is a most amazing actress, to still have the stamina alone - turning up, learning new stuff, being a completely professional participant in a lengthy team process, going through hours of gruelling make up and wardrobe stuff day after day, being in almost every scene. Doesn't she get tired?
I have read a review of this movie that says Maggie Smith 'rescues' it. That it would be some sort of confection without her. That it has virtually no plot, and is generally lacking in substance. So why did I enjoy it so much? - apart from watching Maggie Smith?
What engaged and fascinated me was (playwright and screenwriter) Alan Bennett's exploration of the constantly shifting line between 'real life' and 'fiction.' I can't recall another movie in which the screenwriter is also the protagonist. Plenty of first person narrators, but that isn't the same thing at all. This is a movie about how you write a story.
There are two Alan Bennetts in the movie - the Alan Bennett who is having the real life experience of Miss Shepherd and her dreadful van parked in his driveway for 15 years, and the Alan Bennett who is writing about it. The 'real' story is constantly filtered through the writing. Alan Bennett the writer takes notes of the day to day occurrences between Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd, but what does he choose to include? What 'angle' does he put on it? What story, in the end when she has died, does he want to tell?
As a writer, the process of how you use real life experience in works of fiction has teased and tormented me from the beginning, and it was intriguing to see the whole dilemma laid out here. The writer self and the self who is living real life are in constant communication, making assessments, judgements, ignoring the obvious to focus on a jewel-like detail, leaving out huge chunks of living, searching for meaning. Bennett is courageous enough to even ask how much being a writer actually influences what writers DO in real life. How far would the thing with Miss Shepherd have gone if it weren't for his writer's curiosity to see where the story went?
The real life story is a 'vehicle' also for an exploration of the writer's self. Bennett constantly questions his motives and feelings about Miss Shepherd, and invites the audience to do the same. 'I am not a carer!' he almost shouts at the social worker. 'I am not caring, I don't care!" It is funny, but also deeply puzzling. What is caring, if not this? Who does care, if not Bennett? He denies any relationship with Miss Shepherd, and yet he does all the things that a very good friend, if not even a son, would do. The writer carefully contrasts his relationship with his actual mother, who he puts into a nursing home, with his not-a-relationship with Miss Shepherd, and asks by what means you can judge how much anyone cares for some one else. He judges himself harshly. 'You're just timid,' his writer self concludes, when he questions why he has made no real attempt to move Miss Shepherd on. But timidity and tolerance are shown as two superimposed faces. How much does motive matter in the end anyway? asks the writer.
There is much guilt and self recrimination in Bennett the writer's view of himself. He rings his mother infrequently, does not want her to visit, does not show affection to or even ever touch Miss Shepherd, except in a moment of atypical rage when he manhandles her. 'I'm just raw material', says his mother, and I flinched at the writer's honesty at showing us this.
The ending of the movie, which might otherwise be seen as frivolous and over-the-top, is a perfect and perfectly logical conclusion to the story of how to write a story. Miss Shepherd appears in the graveyard after her funeral, as large as life, and meets the young motor cyclist who she inadvertently killed in a crash years before. This incident had been the trigger for her becoming homeless and identity-less - she was in fact a woman on the run from the police, and haunted by guilt about what she had done. But the writer exonerates her with a stroke of his pen - 'it wasn't your fault,' the young man says, 'I ran into you.' There is nothing to forgive, and they wander off chatting happily arm in arm. But why not have her completely exonerated by God as well? the writer asks. One in the eye for Catholicism, the punishing practice of which has done Miss Shepherd no good at all over the years, and the writer has her suddenly ascending to a gloriously opening Heaven, to be received by a genial, generous and open-hearted God.
It is what writers do. If you can arrange the facts of a woman's life, unchronologically, selectively, and always with a judicious eye to telling the story YOU want to tell about it, why not also engineer a fairy tale ending - the one Miss Shepherd herself would have wanted? It works in the film because it is as funny and incongruous and unexpected as everything we have been shown of the life of The Lady in the Van.
Real life rarely evolves in the form of a satisfying plot. Making sense of it usually involves mental acrobatics of some sort. Whether or not we are writers, we are forever sorting and rearranging the facts to form the narrative of our lives that we want to tell. The Lady in the Van provides a fine and witty example of how this is done.