She's old, she's cantankerous, and she stinks to high heaven. What more could anyone ask for in a houseguest? Movie fans who enjoy the conjoined British arts of character acting and eccentricity are in for a treat with Nicholas Hytner's The Lady in the Van, the ideal pastime for a chilly, drizzly winter night.
The place is chilly, drizzly London, circa 1970, where playwright Alan Bennett (portrayed by Alex Jennings) falls prey to a seemingly helpless but actually wily and combative senior citizen named Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith, in high dudgeon). She and her cluttered van have been hopscotching up and down Bennett's street in Camden Town, where the neighbors either smother the homeless Miss Shepherd with liberal-guilt-driven kindness or utter snide putdowns every time they catch a whiff of her (she eats raw onions and gives no evidence of having bathed recently).
By the time she gets around to Bennet and his driveway, it's established that Miss Shepherd is also a devout Roman Catholic as well as a semi-repentant sinner on the run. Veteran actress Dame Smith, who has been impersonating willful females on stage and screen for sixty years, from Hedda Gabler to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Richard III to the Harry Potter series, cements another unforgettable lady into her monumental career with Miss Shepherd. Arrayed in scavenged clothes and wielding an iron will, she steals scenes as easily as arching an eyebrow. And never, ever says thanks.
Smith is so overpowering that it takes half the movie for us to realize how good Jennings is. As adapted from the real-life Bennett's stage play, it's the put-upon host's job to accede to Miss Shepherd's every desire, but then to chide himself for being such a pushover. This is accomplished by giving him a doppelganger. One Alan leads his life, including cleaning up after Miss Shepherd as she sets up a fifteen-year residency in his driveway; the other Alan comments disapprovingly from his writing desk, with the same bland Northern English accent. Together, they're the perfect foil for the perfect dominatrix. And as we learn more about the lady's past, Bennett's mincing comic acquiescence turns into something resembling ultimate compassion, simply by a shift in his perspective, and ours. What a brilliant sitcom setup.
For those who care to go deep, Bennett and Hytner stock the film with numerous in-jokes and cameos. The separate subplots involving Bennett's mother (Gwen Taylor), a blackmailing policeman (Jim Broadbent), and the key disappointment in Miss Shepherd's life all add to the kaleidoscopic richness of the story. For a movie with so many characters passing through, The Lady in the Van could arguably work just as well as a two-person dramedy. But then we'd miss out on the fine grain of her van's homemade paint job with the plastic trash bags beneath, and the Greek chorus of the neighbors on Gloucester Crescent, each with his or her own carefully drawn situation. This is a movie that rewards repeated viewings, just to appreciate all its facets. Enjoy.