(M) Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings

by Mark Hadley

The film The Lady In The Van reminds us that by refusing to see the difficult people around us we not only lock them away from God’s love, we relinquish His goodness for ourselves.

The Lady In The Van is a big-screen retelling of writer Alan Bennett’s original London stage production, itself based on true events in his own life. Maggie Smith plays Miss Shepherd, an elderly woman who lives in a van parked on the street Bennett moves into in the 1970s. Miss Shepherd is a crabby biddy who detests music, speaks to the Virgin Mary and has spent years cultivating a disturbing odour that is barely cloaked by Yardley’s Lavender.

Smith evokes real sympathy as a bag lady tortured by inner demons. When Bennett sees her being harassed by council officials and local hoodlums he invites her to park her van in his driveway. Little does he know that when her handbrake comes on it will remain in place for the next 15 years. Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, is in two minds about what he has done, and is often portrayed standing next to himself arguing what best his course of action might be. “One seldom was able to do her a good turn,” Bennett says, considering her cantankerousness, “without some thoughts of strangulation.” But this reticence comes from seeing the world as something we have to hold at bay and not God’s idea of our greatest good.

What Bennett discovers is an essential Christian truth: sacrifice is amongst God’s prime tools for growing Christ-like character. Those who seek to help others in God’s name regularly discover that He is actually helping them. Sadly the religious characters in The Lady In The Van are too taken up with doing God’s business to benefit from the service He puts in front of them. Bennett is equally frustrated by his imposed lodger, but by learning about her he comes to see someone who could have been his mother.

The Lady In The Van is a poignant, human story that should leave us asking, ‘Who is God parking in my own driveway?’ Open your eyes – does their need scare you? Then consider this: those who draw on God’s grace to meet the needs of those around them will find it a curious commodity. Rather than running out, the more they share the more they have to use.

This review was originally published by Eternity newspaper. Click here for more Eternity culture articles.