What were the true circumstances of Miss Margaret Fairchild, an impoverished woman living in her disabled Bedford van parked in the courtyard of British author, Alan Bennett for fifteen years? Thanks to his compassionate restraint, he delayed publishing her story in The London Review of Books until after her death in 1989. For decades he had already studied the downtrodden and heralded their stories.

Throughout the movie, The Lady in the Van (2015), its screenplay written by the same author, we glean hints of her past: a concert pianist, who had studied Chopin with the Swiss-French virtuoso Alfred Cortot; a former nun whose superior ordered her to sacrifice her passion for music with prayer; a psychiatric patient committed by her brother for treatment of her shattered world; an escapee who lived the rest of her life within its pieces. After her van accidentally killed a motorcyclist on a country road, she changed her name from Margaret Fairchild to Mary Shepherd.

Through the artistry of Alan Bennet, we have the portrait of a damaged woman, bold-spirited, eking out her last years among neighbors on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, an inner city district of London. Many of them remembered Mary and shared stories with the film crew.

Kudos to Alan Bennett for perceiving Miss Mary Shepherd as a lady, despite her stench, her stubbornness, her vinegar speech, her raucous laughter. Her nobility shines through the shards of her existence. We were touched.

 

 

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