Movie Review: “The Lady in the Van”

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Any minute now, Dame Maggie Smith is going to be named a United Nations World Cultural site, and finally get her due.

Meanwhile, we can enjoy one of her great performances — as a rude, dotty, guilt-ridden and homeless bully in Alan Bennett’s twee and sentimental comedy, “The Lady in the Van.”

It’s a true story — “mostly” — about a real British bag lady who moved into playwright Bennett’s Camden Town (London) driveway in 1974, and stayed in assorted vans, which she painted a garish, messy yellow, for 15 years.

Bennett took notes, even though he argued with himself that he’d “never” do anything with them. Bennett (Alex Jennings of “The Queen”) narrates that “Writing is talking to oneself.” And so he does, two Alan Bennetts bickering with each other as the writer who came to fame with “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys,” uttered “tutt tutt” to the very human gay man Alan Bennett, who took pity on an old homeless woman and never quite owned up to that.

The pity part, I mean. The ex-nun, one-time pianist “Mary Shepherd” (Smith) is such a grumpy ingrate, so insistently pushy, that Bennett was left no choice in the matter.

“The Lady in the Van,” directed by Bennett’s frequent collaborator Nicholas Hytner, is something of a comedy of manners — English manners. The neighbors (Roger Allam and the grand Frances de la Tour play two of them) are too polite, too worried about giving offense to do anything about this slovenly, smelly old woman who moves her van from spot to spot, hiding from the police and social workers, fouling their neighborhood with her odor and her protests anytime anyone plays music.

They indulge her. She insists on it, by guilting one and all.

And Bennett, beautifully impersonated by Jennings as a fey but unflappable writer given to late night hook-ups with actors (Dominic Cooper plays one), makes wry comments on her smell, her squalor and her “chosen” style of living.

Smith, whose Mary huffs, “I DIDN’T choose. It chose me,” is never less than a stitch, sympathetic in her dotage and rarely allowing sentiment to creep into her crusty performance.

There’s something of John Prine’s famous song about the loneliness and indignities of old age, “Hello in There,” in her work here. She’s played old and mean and sharp-tongued so often it’s become a calling card. Here, a Catholic praying over the guilt for some long ago tragedy, Smith allows us to pity Mary even as we marvel at how she manages to get her way, live her life and use others without ever deigning to thank a single one of them.

“I am in DIRE need of assistance,” she protests. And Bennett, guilty of not spending enough time with his own “Mam” (Gwen Taylor), assists.

Jim Broadbent is the mystery man in Mary’s life, a mystery the audience understands thanks to an opening scene that hints the source of her guilt. But that device takes nothing from this story of age and a sort of grudging respect that accompanies it, no matter how undignified the person who has achieved that great age might be.

It’s a film that flirts with cloying, here and there — especially at the end. But it reminds us, even before that U.N. recognition becomes official, that there’ll always be an England, that English manners survive, and there’ll always be a Maggie Smith, imperious, hilarious and glorious in that wonderful third act her life and career have given her.

3half-star
MPAA Rating: PG – 13 for a brief unsettling image

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour,Gwen Taylor Roger Allam
Credits: Directed by Nicholas Hytner, script by Alan Bennett. A Tristar/Sony Pictures Classics/BBC Films release.

Running time: 1:44

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