In 1970, London's Camden Town was an up and coming area populated by artists. Gay playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, "The Queen") moved into 23 Gloucester Crescent claiming an independent stake separate from his suburban, widowed mother (Gwen Taylor, "The Life of Brian"). The street also housed an eccentric character. The elderly Miss Shepard (Maggie Smith) lived in a dilapidated vehicle, moving further and further down the street as its liberal denizens lost patience with having her parked outside. By the time she hit number 23, she was pushing the vehicle and the authorities were ready to move her out so Bennett offered her the temporary use of his driveway. He spent the next fifteen years with "The Lady in the Van."
For their third screen collaboration after adapting both "The Madness of King George" and "The History Boys" from their plays, director Nicholas Hytner and screenwriter Alan Bennett ("Prick Up Your Ears") have made a fanciful version of Bennett's memoir. As Bennett 'the man who lives' wrestles with Bennett 'the man who writes' inside, the cantankerous Shepard takes no prisoners outside, screaming at children daring to play music, dubiously inspecting proferred goods with no thanks for the articles she chooses. Although they never become actual friends, they are both outsiders of sorts, and so become drawn to one another. While Shepard slips his rough trade visitors out the door, avoiding the attention of neighbors, Miss Shepard receives the occasional, scary nighttime visit from Underwood (Jim Broadbent), a man also wishing to keep a low profile for reasons the protective Bennett eventually sleuths out.
It's amusing to watch the typical British reserve nonplussed by Shepard's brusque entitlement. The film opens with Bennett on a tear about Shepard's aromas and leavings, her personal waste management skills leaving something to be desired, her occasional request to use his loo offending his olfactory sensibilities. "The Lady in the Van" may be 'light' entertainment, but Hytner and Bennett give us a good sense of the neighborhood and just how far liberals can be pushed when faced with a decrepit eyesore and its cranky mistress. There is the suggestion based on Bennett's interactions with his mother that guilt may play some part in his acceptance of Shepard. The screenwriter also adds psychological profiling of the older woman, weaving details he learned after her death into his narrative (a long ago accident explaining Underwood's nefarious intent, a career and love for classical music forbidden in a Catholic convent). The adjustment allows the screen Bennett's curiosity about just how this educated woman ended up homeless to slake ours.
The film is at its best when showcasing Maggie Smith, keeping her Downton dowager's sharp tongue within a character at the opposite end of the social spectrum. Smith doesn't play for laughs, although she can be very funny, as much as she creates a real, mentally disturbed woman unashamed of her lot. She spruces up her van with garish paint, sloppily applied. The interior is jammed with supplies and possessions that look like a hoarder's pile but assumes order in her mind. Visits by a compassionate local social worker (Cecilia Noble) are often met with resistance, but one glorious day results in an off site bath. Bennett's parallel story, however, which illustrates the man's struggles in his craft by the actor playing against himself, doesn't fulfill its intriguing concept and a last act appearance by the real Bennett plays more like a 'making of' extra than a break in the fourth wall.
"The Lady in the Van" is a small film about a true British eccentric that proves a perfect vehicle for Maggie Smith's unique talents.
Robin gives "The Lady in the Van" a C+.
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