The mystery of the Lady in the Van



The Lady in the Van (dir. Nicholas Hytner, cert. 12A) has Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd, a homeless woman living out of a van. She parked near writer Alan Bennett’s Camden home, and was eventually invited to put the van on his drive.

Bennett wrote up the story for a West End play in 1999, and Smith reprises her stage role. It may give her yet another Oscar® nomination.

Neighbours Rufus (Roger Allam) and Pauline (Deborah Findlay) are not keen, but others are more kindly, including Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ widow Ursula (Frances de la Tour). Social workers come and go, with Bennett (Alex Jennings) insisting he is not her “carer” – “There is no caring” – but of course he does care, even in the face of her wilful refusal to offer a thank you.

Within Bennett’s home, Jennings plays Bennett the man and Bennett the writer (it was two actors on stage), often arguing with himself about what he’s taken on, and indeed whether at some stage he will write about her. He knows little – other than her background as a failed nun – but is aware of her going to regular confession; “I used to pray”, he mutters, and then wonders, “What has she done?”

The priest (Dermot Crowley) – as well as keeping air freshener near the confessional – knows, and despairs. “Absolution,” he tells her, “is not like a bus pass. It does not run out.”

Slowly Bennett uncovers more of her story – concert pianist, mental illness, an accident where she believes she was at fault – and a brother in Broadstairs. Briefly accepting respite care, she finds a piano in the day centre – it’s a catch-the-breath moment as Smith sees the instrument, even before she strikes a key.

Extracts from Bennett’s book (in The Guardian) give some insights into the story, and what’s true and what isn’t. Spoilers abound of course:

The film is less eccentric than its characters, which include a dodgy copper played by Jim Broadbent. Bennett, having provided a series of choice one-liners for Smith, himself joins real-life neighbours for a supposed blue plaque ceremony at the house – but that’s after an added scene of her imaginary ascension into the arms of God.


Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle, cert. 15) tells half a story about the Apple co-founder, played by Michael Fassbender (and more likely to get him award nominations than as Macbeth). Concentrating on the launches of new products (Macintosh, iMac), and Job’s relationships with ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (played aged 5 by Makenzie Moss, at 9 by Ripley Sobo and at 19 by Perla Haney-Jardine).

His initial reluctance to admit paternity and support Chrisann and Lisa, even when he’s very wealthy, runs through the film, but most of the story is about relationships with his colleagues, past and present. Keeping up is a challenge – the script is by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), so fast dialogue (Sorkin means walkin’ and talkin’) and intercut flashbacks keep a pace throughout.

Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) designed the first Apple computer, and Jobs was as much salesman as inspiration. Software specialist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) often seems at odds with Jobs.

Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is the marketing mastermind, but in the film she is the fixer for Jobs, making sure he gets on stage for the launches, and trying to get him to do the right thing by Chrisann and Lisa. The main man in trying to control Jobs is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), brought in from Pepsi-Cola by Jobs to be CEO, and eventually (in the film) forcing Jobs out of Apple – one of the intercut time jumping scenes is whether Jobs jumped or was pushed.

His natural mother wanted his adoptive parents to be “Catholic, well-educated and wealthy” (his natural father was a Syrian Muslim) but he ended up with the blue-collar Jobs family, and there’s some exploration of how his adoptive parents at first denied him love, fearing he’d be taken from them. His interest in Zen Buddhism does not feature, though it does in Alex Gibney’s documentary   Steve Jobs – The Man in the Machine, which as yet hasn’t got a UK release date.

Sorkin’s script mixes the technical (not too much – they even explain what OS stands for) with the emotional, concluding with Jobs’ confessing to teenage Lisa that “I am poorly made”. It’s a rare sign of humility, in response to her barb that the iMac looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake oven.

Perhaps Wozniak gets the best verdict on his collaborator, who cannot now defend himself. He tells Jobs, who died from cancer in 2001, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted”.

Steve Parish