Imagine a select audience viewing The Lady in the Van, an audience who could best relate to the actual circumstances of the main character, an audience invited from the city streets of say, London; an audience of homeless women. Imagine what their private thoughts on the film might be.
We see the main character, Miss Shepherd, for the most part from the outside, from the points of view of neighbors who view her variously as an impediment, a charity case/object of pity, a conversation topic, or a curiosity. As Cecilia Ford says in her post, Filming the Mind: Mental Illness in the Movies, “It’s hard to understand mental illness from the outside.” Maggie Smith’s brilliant acting does not overcome the script’s dramatic oversimplification of Miss Shepherd’s mental state and its contributing causes.
We are gradually informed that her Catholic guilt over an accident she did not cause and the convent’s cruel suppression of her musical genius have led to her delusions. We are to surmise that this mental state has taken her down the path to poverty, and that her homelessness is a long-term consequence of her mental illness and poverty. What is missing from the tale, as our select audience immediately notes, is Miss Shepherd’s own feelings about her living conditions, particularly her unmet basic hygiene needs and her dependence on a man whose mere toleration of her presence is deemed saintly.
We meet a well-to-do and perhaps well-intentioned brother who once had her committed to an asylum, and whose wife (he says, deflecting responsibility,) will not let Miss Shepherd into the house. We do not learn whether the brother knows or cares, where or how his sister currently lives. Though being portrayed from the outside will feel familiar to our imagined audience, being portrayed from the outside as an odiferous if amusing outcast will likely not endear the film to the viewers.
One New York Times reviewer describes Miss Shepherd’s character as “termagant” i.e., a harsh-tempered or overbearing woman. Historically, termagant meant an imaginary deity of violent and turbulent character, often appearing in morality plays. The origin of the word is even more pertinent. It comes from Middle English via Old French from the Italian, trivigante, from the Latin tri- ‘three’ + vagant- ‘wandering,’ referring to the moon “wandering” between heaven, earth, and hell under the three names: Selene, Artemis, and Persephone. Miss Shepherd is certainly overbearing, turbulent, and wandering of body and mind. But if it is a morality play, The Lady in the Van is a morality play seen through the looking glass; Mental illness, Poverty, and Homelessness personified, not as virtues or vices, but as eccentrically comic.
Most would see The Lady in the Van as a finely made and superbly acted film. I agree. But I wonder, is art that makes homelessness palatable as entertainment, a successful piece of art? It depends on what one sees as the purpose of art. And it depends on the point of view from which the subject is seen.
Though the theme is purported to be the friendship between Miss Shepherd and Mr. Bates, the film’s appeal seems to stem more from a voyeuristic point of view into a kind of human suffering most filmgoers have never experienced. Anything so one-directional looks very little like friendship. Even if the educated and actual Miss Shepherd had written a tale of peering into the life of Mr. Bates, instead of the other way around, it still wouldn’t suggest something as mutual as friendship.
I think that neither the real Mary Shepherd, nor my imagined audience of currently homeless women, would have seen friendship as the crux of the story. Nor would they have been able to describe this film with homelessness at its core as quaint, quirky, a delightful must-see, or cozily enjoyable.
Perhaps the film disturbed me because I am a female elder who is aware that any of us could be but a few traumas, or years, or losses away from the circumstances of a Mary Shepherd. I would be interested in hearing from others whose visceral responses to the film might be different than their intellectual ones, or at odds with the general feel-good reviews.