Fans of Maggie Smith’s cantankerous “Downton Abbey” character Violet Crawley will find some pleasure in her new performance as a homeless woman. The costumes have changed but her irascibility and way with a line are firmly in place.
“The Lady in the Van,” is the true story of the friendship between “The History Boys” playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and Miss Mary Shepherd (Smith, reprising her acclaimed stage role) the woman who lives in front of his Camden home. In the early 1970s he let her park her van in his driveway. “It’ll be easier,” he says, “just until she figures out where she’s going.” Fifteen years later she was still there, a curiosity for the neighbours but a muse of sorts for Bennett.
Little by little he discovers more details about her life—how she was once a nun, a gifted piano player and once committed to an institution by her family—including her darkest secret, that she felt responsible for the death of a motorcyclist after a car accident. Living in fear of arrest her life unravelled and she wound up on Bennett’s driveway and a part of his life.
“The Lady in the Van” is a character study of a difficult person contained in a movie that often errs on the side of sentiment, particularly in its fanciful final moments, but avoids caricature. It isn’t driven by story, instead it’s a comedy of manners propelled by Smith’s characterization of the eccentric titular character and the human bond that grows between Bennett and Shepherd.
In terms of any real action, nothing much happens, save for a bang at the beginning.
Bennett, who wrote the screenplay based on his stage play, is clearly fond of his central character—despite describing her as someone for whom “feelings of gratitude, humility and forgiveness were either foreign to her nature or had become so over the years”—and has painted a portrait of a socially uncomfortable woman who isn’t an ogre but a tragic figure. Smith brings her to vivid life, giving this slight movie some real heart and soul.