When English author and playwright Alan Bennett offered to allow an elderly, itinerant woman to park her van in his driveway temporarily he didn’t expect her to stay for 15 years.
“The Lady in the Van” – this month’s free film showing at Star Hall – is based on Bennett’s memoir about his relationship with the woman who lived in her van in his driveway from the early 1970s until her death in 1989. Goodreads.com describes the story as “poignant, funny but unsentimental account of their strange relationship.”
Actress Maggie Smith, who starred as the matriarch in the popular television series “Downton Abbey” plays the part of Miss Shepherd, the eccentric “bag lady.” Actor Alex Jennings portrays Bennett. The film is the third collaboration between Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner.
Miss Shepherd had been a fixture on the quiet street in Camden Town, where she would move her van further down the street whenever she outstayed her welcome in front of other people’s homes. When the city council said she needed to move on, Bennett said she could park the van in his driveway temporarily.
Hytner learned of the story after Bennett published his memoir in the London Review of Book’s 25th anniversary edition in 1989. Ten years later Bennett wrote “The Lady in the Van” for the stage. He later turned the story into a film.
The monthly film screenings at Star Hall are a collaboration between the Salt Lake City-based Utah Film Center and the Grand County Library. The two entities began partnering in 2011 to bring thoughtful, independent movies and documentaries to Moab audiences.
“We endeavor to include something light-hearted in each line-up, especially in the summer, and “Lady In the Van” certainly seems to fit the bill,” said library assistant Jessie Magleby. “This film features yet another magnificent performance by Dame Maggie Smith as an eccentric, cantankerous, indigent old woman. It is a funny movie, with quirky characters, and plenty of laughs, but with an underlying message of social conscience.”
Bennett has said that if the film has a point it is “about fairness and tolerance and, however grudgingly, helping the less fortunate, who are not well thought of these days. And now likely to be even less so.”
Magleby said it’s a humorous film with “colorful characters,” that is also about compassion and “accidental friendships.”
After Bennett’s memoir was published, Miss Shepherd’s brother contacted the author and filled in some of the blanks regarding his sister. Miss Shepherd, it turns out was an accomplished concert pianist who had trained in Paris with virtuoso Alfred Cortot. She fulfilled a desire to be a nun, but found strict convent life difficult because music was forbidden.
Grand County Library head of adult services Meg Flynn said she attends most all of the film showings and that it’s been great to partner with the Utah Film Commission.
“It’s an excellent program to be able to offer,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the community.
“(Actress) Maggie Smith is wonderful. I’m looking forward to seeing her on the big screen. I’m sure it will be a crowd pleaser.”
Free film to show July 21 at Star Hall
“This film features yet another magnificent performance by Dame Maggie Smith as an eccentric, cantankerous, indigent old woman. It is a funny movie, with quirky characters, and plenty of laughs, but with an underlying message of social conscience.”
When: Thursday, July 21 at 7 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.