Maggie Smith’s Ms. Shepherd is “NOT a beggar!” although you could hardly blame someone for assuming so – she’s dirty, she lives in a derelict van, and her “self-employment” appears to consist of chalk art on the street, and selling pencils. That van of hers is a neighbourhood nuisance; the people live in fear of when she might exercise her “Christian parking” principles beside their little bit of curb.
Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay,and is also a character in the movie, portrayed by the excellent Alex Jennings. This is based on a mostly true story. This woman, who elicited both sympathy and revulsion in her “neighbours”, was a nutshell that fascinated and
inspired both Alan’s decency, and his creativity, when he moved into Camden in the 1970s.
Bennett is moved to have the mysterious lady in the van move into his driveway to keep her legal, though her obstinacy insists it is she doing the favour for him. She is most ungrateful but Bennett cares for her as best he can (and “caring” he intones, “is about shit”), always battling internally over what’s right and what’s right for him. Bennett-the-screenwriter isn’t shy about telling us what really happened, and what just makes for a nicer story. In fact, Bennett has conveniently split himself in two, the one who goes out and lives, and the one who stays home and writes.
The lady in the van lived outside Bennett’s home for two decades, a noble vagabond in greasy rags, living inside a grubby vehicle – one so convincing that the cast and director turned up one Monday morning to find that real homeless people had broken into it and spent the weekend inside, making use of it as two people might (the van’s contents had to be deep-cleaned before they could be made suitably grimy again for production). They filmed in the very driveway of the very home where Bennett lived at the time.
Smith’s performance is vital and infuriatingly nuanced. You haven’t seen Dame Smith like this before. This film is a feather in her already-decorated cap: not to be missed.