The delights of the acerbic Maggie Smith aside, The Lady in the Van (Nicolas Hytner, 2015) does not make much sense.

THE LADY IN THE VAN

True, films that “make sense” tend to bore me. I suspect in them a desire “to speed viewers across the scenes in such a way that they can salute a readymade idea effortlessly in passing, without suspecting that real thought demands a descent into the materiality of images and a consent to time itself in the form of the shot.”[1] But though The Lady in the Van is a film trying to make sense in just this readymade and effortless way, it fails. It fails precisely at the junctures of religion, and not in ways that encourage real thought.

One can say the film is ‘about’ poverty. Or it is ‘about’ mental illness. Or it portrays (superficially) the alienations and isolations endemic to neighbors and neighborhood life. But it presents these thematics with the lightest possible touch, to the point of making light of them. In its widest frame, I suppose the film can function as a translation of the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, which itself functions as a narrativization of the Golden Rule’s prescription to love our neighbor as ourselves. But it is an odd translation, one that remains arbitrary and individualistic, and one that notices the possibility of social and theological critique without bothering to actualize it.

Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is filmed as a solid crotchety bum who also has inexplicable wisps of other affects rolling off of her like fog. These cloudy interruptions evoke her love and talent for classical piano, and her misplaced—that is, incorrect—guilt and shame at, she has convinced herself, once having killed a man while driving. The nuns are blamed for stripping her of her love of music, and the church’s rituals are shown powerless to address her false guilt, particularly in the face of the quite powerful blackmail wreaked on her by a former police officer. “Call the Midwife” this is not. The church seeps into the neighborhood but only ineffectively, without witnessing or modeling the call to be neighbor and without intervening compassionately at all in Miss Shepherd’s life. Meanwhile, the actual neighbors are pretty horrible, and the playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) ends up forging a neighborly relation with Miss Shepherd almost by default, while at the same time acting a veritable stranger to his own mother.

Yes, Maggie Smith is delightful. But the ethical, political and theological questions and situations thrown up by the film are at once poignant gestures to the pervasive and brutal anonymities and insufficiencies of our shared neoliberal worlds, and treated in this film with singular impotence.

 

[1] This is a sentence about language and Adorno that I have brutally reworked from Fred Jameson, Marxism and Form, xiii.