The Lady in the Van

Directed By: Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, and Roger Allam

In her golden years, Maggie Smith has really cornered the market for playing tough old dames on the big screen.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, and My Old Lady have all proven this in the last several years.  With each return to the big screen, Smith doesn't just play on her persona as the actress with perhaps the most sarcastic tongue.  She tackles characters who are prickly on the surface but compelling upon deeper examination.  It's no different in her turn as Mary Shepherd in The Lady in the Van.  This time around, however, she's portraying a real person, one whom she's portrayed on stage previously in the play of the same name on which the film is based.  It's safe to say that the esteemed actress once again rises to the occasion and delivers another delightful performance that elevates this film tremendously.

It's the 1970s.  Writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) has just moved into his home in the London neighborhood Camden.  As he gets acclimated to the community, he learns of Miss Mary Shepherd (Smith), an older woman who lives inside a Bedford van and outside the homes of paying residents.  Uninspired to write any new plays at the moment, Alan takes to watching Miss Shepherd and how she interacts with the community.  Observation soon becomes interaction, and he gets some face-to-face time with this sick woman who's possibly dying.  As Alan and Miss Shepherd become acquaintances, she works her way down the streets of Camden to park and reside in front of Alan's home.  However, Miss Shepherd keeps her cards close to the vest and is hiding something, namely the fact that she is on the lam.  Over the course of the next fifteen years, this old fugitive stays in "hiding" in front of Alan's home in Camden.

The greatest comedy-dramas can turn on a dime from gut-busting humor to gut-wrenching heartaches.  Director Nicholas Hytner's The Lady in the Van fits this bill.  With Maggie Smith reprising her role as Miss Shepherd on the big screen, this should come as no surprise.  At the top of her game, she is absolutely delightful as the feisty old vagabond.  Flawed to perfection, Smith offers her usual caustic wit but something more as this reclusive, peculiar character.  She marries grace and wisdom with a disdain for society and a mental instability.  In one moment, she's a wise old lady who can pierce the veil Alan wears and offer words of advice.  In another, she's the crazy lady painting her van with the most distasteful yellow color.  It's a really fascinating performance that pays big dividends time and time again throughout the film.

The other cast members deliver the goods as well.  Alex Jennings serves up a rather amusing interpretation of Alan Bennett.  He offers an intriguing performance as this writer with split personalities laced with plenty of dry humor.  He also plays very well off Maggie Smith's Miss Shepherd as the straight man for some of the film's funniest sequences.  I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay in their amusing performances as Rufus and Pauline, the neighbors from across the street.  They give us the onlookers providing commentary from the audience's perspective.  Their performances are quite comical.

Though this is a film driven by the outstanding performances from its cast, Hytner does play a pivotal role in The Lady in the Van from the director's chair.  With his stylistic flourishes and his commitment to making Camden a world of its own, he keeps the film from feeling like a stage play and makes the neighborhood a three-dimensional setting that can thrive on the big screen.  He also intersperses the film with flashbacks to Miss Shepherd's younger days fueling the intrigue surrounding the old lady.

Perfectly content in Miss Shepherd's filth, The Lady in the Van gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers while checking this one out.