I’m always surprised after seeing Dame Maggie Smith onscreen by how few Oscars she has (two). I mentioned this to a friend who pointed out that Smith doesn’t do what she does for the awards (though I’m sure she doesn’t mind those). Dame Maggie Smith acts because she loves it, and ‘The Lady in the Van’ is a perfect example of just what that means.
Set in the 1970s, Dame Maggie plays Mary Sheppard, an elderly homeless lady living in a van which she moves from street to street in outer London. She’s a source of both amusement and contempt to the residents of one particular street as they take bets on whose house she will park outside next. Writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moves to the neighbourhood and strikes up an uneasy tolerance with Mary. What begins as a temporary arrangement when she parks her van in his garden becomes a (strained) friendship lasting for 15 years.
‘The Lady in the Van’ begins with a bang, hinting at the mystery surrounding Mary that teases us throughout most of the film. It’s distinctively BBC, with excellent writing, a spot-on score, and superb performances across the board. But this is Smith’s film, and she owns it. While Smith shares well with Jennings and the rest of the cast, every moment on screen belongs to her. What she manages to convey with seconds of facial expression is powerful, and one of the many reasons why Maggie Smith deserves the title Dame. Admittedly, this is her third go playing this character, so she’s had a bit of practice.
Based on Alan Bennett’s true story, certain liberties are taken with events that Bennett himself readily points out. Luckily, these liberties enrich the story and enhance the messages on display. The film seeks to challenge many of our preconceptions, not least of which are the presumptions we make about the homeless. The only reason this film isn’t getting five stars from me is that, at times, it lays some of the sweetness on a bit thick, and needs Smith’s irascibility to rescue it.
The film seeks to challenge many of our preconceptions, not least of which are the presumptions we make about the homeless.
Jennings is brilliant as Bennett, managing to convey similar amounts of telling emotion in nothing more than glances, many of which are shared with himself – you’ll understand when you see it (because you will see it). Jim Broadbent makes an appearance as Mary’s harasser, deepening the mystery surrounding her past. Several other 'Harry Potter' alumni make appearances, along with Alan Bennett himself in a little extra at the very end. Cecilia Noble stands out as the social worker who simply can’t understand the situation for what it is.
I’ve mentioned before that it is always a lot more difficult to write about a good film rather than a bad one, because you can always tell why a bad film is bad, but sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on why a good film is good. For ‘The Lady in the Van’ it really comes down to two things – the strength of the source material in Bennett’s book, and the absolute and incredible talent of the lead actress. Together they make an inspiring story not only entertaining, but emotionally fulfilling.