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Maggie Smith Excels As 'The Lady In The Van'

Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett in a scene from <em>The Lady in the Van</em>.
Nicola Dove
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett in a scene from The Lady in the Van.

In the early 1970s, an elderly homeless woman who called herself Miss Shepherd parked her decrepit van in the London driveway of British playwright Alan Bennett. Bennett had invited her, ambivalently and with every expectation she'd leave before long. She stayed for 15 years, and The Lady in the Van, Bennett's hilarious, self-lacerating, and wistful account of her sojourn among the trendy liberals of Camden Town, became first an article and then a stage play starring — who else? — Maggie Smith. The play was a transatlantic success, but Bennett took some flack for "exploiting" Miss Shepherd for literary purposes. A curious charge given that most writers' source material tends to be — in or out of the driveway — other people.

Now Bennett has teamed with the play's director, Nicholas Hytner, for a charming, if slightly over-sugared movie version, their third film collaboration after The History Boys and the wonderful The Madness of King George. Dame Maggie takes the lead again as the cantankerous Miss S., looking, in elaborate layers of bag-lady threads artfully adorned with crumbs and stains, for all the world like Lady Grantham fallen on hard times. Miss Shepherd's a show-stopper, flapping her hands and popping her eyes, complaining to Bennett in a querulous, Julia Child warble about the facilities, the food brought to her van's door by well-meaning neighbors, the social workers bearing second-hand coats.

By way of a malevolent stranger played with smarmy relish by Jim Broadbent, we learn that Miss Shepherd is not the old lady's real name. Bit by bit, flashbacks clear up the mystery of why a woman so down on her luck would have a posh accent, speak fluent French, perk up at a few bars of Beethoven, and go down on her knees early and often to seek atonement for a crime she may or may not have committed. There's tragedy to burn in Miss Shepherd's past, and Hytner, ever ready to gild the lily, lays it on with gusto. Mercifully, Dame Maggie's fully in touch with her inner Yelling Ingrate, and Bennett's sharp dialogue makes it clear that the old lady's strident refusal of help unless she demands it herself is her way of hanging onto her independence and the tatters of a dignity horribly wounded by early adversity and current cruelty.

What's more, it turns out that Miss Shepherd has led a more adventurous life than all the trendy lefties who queue up to ply her with gourmet delicatesse while holding their noses and wishing her anywhere but here. The ghost of Charles Dickens hovers closely over every neighbor (Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour excel) who tries to pitch in while backing away from the old lady's rank odor. What many daintily refer to as English eccentricity is more accurately grasped here as a kind of barely controlled lunacy, gussied up in sensible sweaters and good manners. This includes Bennett, and for thematic reasons Hytner splits him into two Alan Bennetts, both rendered by the terrific Alex Jennings, who memorably played a pitifully ineffectual Prince Charles in the 2006 movie The Queen. There's Bennett the sardonic writer in search of material; and Bennett the owlish, partially closeted bachelor in search of a life, ruefully aware that his fascination with Miss Shepherd is intimately connected with his tortured love for his Mam (Gwen Taylor), a kindly ingénue who's losing the plot far faster than Miss Shepherd.

Hytner's directing style is perhaps best described as BBC Films Plus, a functional telly-realism garnished with formal flourishes — unusual life forms come and go without warning — that head off any potential slide into kitchen-sink pathos. That would be to betray Bennett's sensibility, which sits uncomfortably but fruitfully between jaundiced observation and the compassion of a man who understands marginality all too well. Divided against himself and forever unsure of his own motives, Bennett Squared isn't just telling the story of his encounter with one of England's dispossessed. He's conducting an inquiry into the roots of kindness, where he finds indolence, passivity, self-interest — and a genuine desire to help and heal that he sees in the very doctors, social workers and ambulance drivers routinely fingered in movies as the enemy.

In a semi-final burst of special effects that shifts gears yet again, the movie pays tribute to the undefeated brio of Miss Shepherd, bestowing on her a make-a-wish fantasy exit as welcome as it is giddily off-kilter. Hytner's not done locking things up, though. At the very end, each Alan is presented with a gift he's longed for, too. Sentimental? In spades, and would you believe? For once, it actually happened that way.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.