The Lady in the Van: Maggie Smith Shines in Quirky British Comedy
Based on writer Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir, the ‘mostly true’ story of one Margaret Shepherd – an eccentric homeless woman who back in the mid-70’s decided to set up camp in Bennett’s North London driveway and stay there for fifteen years – is beautifully told in Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van; a humorous and touching tale of an unusual friendship brought to life by an engaging script and one deliciously weird and quirky performance by the forever-great Dame Maggie Smith.
Adapted to the screen by Bennett himself – his story was initially turned into a book back in 1989 before taking up stage in London’s West End in 1999 – The Lady in the Van begins by introducing Alan Bennett (Jennings); a witty, dry and a seemingly withdrawn playwright who has just moved in to his new home in Camden, London. Thanks to camera trickery, there are two versions of the writer to be witnessed here; one is Bennett the man – a shy and a reserved fellow who deals with the outside world – and Bennett the writer; someone who sits, writes and complains about the lack of intrigue and excitement in their somewhat boring and complicated co-existence.
Things take an interesting turn with the appearance of Miss. Shepherd (Smith); a strange, smelly and a particularly single-minded drifter who lives out of the back of a van. After not being able to park her van out on the street anymore, Miss. Shepherd – whose unconventional characteristics have already ignited an interest in the writer – turns to Bennett for help. Taking pity on the poor old lady, he soon agrees for her to temporarily use his driveway which, as it turns out, she stayed on for fifteen years.
It’s easy to recognise The Lady in the Van’s theatrical roots with the movie bearing a somewhat of an artificial and at times, a distractingly stagey feel. However, that should not pose as a problem with the magnificent Maggie Smith at play, whose performance is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive the film’s tiny drawbacks. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, Smith is absolutely superb as the wandering oldster whose mysterious past involving a hit-and-run – something that serves as the major subplot in the story – has led her to where she is today. Her interaction with Bennett – a pleasantly reliable Jennings – is where the story’s heart lies and it’s his never-ending curiosity about his particularly strange squatter that ends up slowly unravelling the mystery behind her suffering existence.
Staying clear of unnecessary melodrama and over-sentimentalising its subject, The Lady in the Van is all about Smith’s turn and, while its peculiar set up may not appeal to everyone’s taste, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being taken in by this 80 year old actress’ immense talent and her incredible ability of commanding the screen.