“The Lady in the Van”
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image
Running time: 104 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
For a half-dozen seasons, Dame Maggie Smith has been delighting television viewers as dowager Violet Crawley on “Downton Abbey.” Younger fans of the show might be unaware that she’s a two-time Oscar-winner (for California Suite and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) who had already enjoyed an illustrious career prior to appearing on the the hit PBS series.
In “The Lady in the Van,” she’s been cast as a character practically the polar opposite of the imperious aristocrat we’ve come to love. For, Margaret Shepherd is a down-and-out homeless woman humbled by having to live out of a van which she parks on the street in the Camden Town section of North London.
At the point of departure in the early Seventies, we learn that Margaret’s miserable plight is substantially one of her making. She’s been on the run for five years since leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run car accident.
And while the devout Catholic has confessed the sin to her priest, she could never quite bring herself to surrender to the authorities. Consequently, she’s forever looking over her shoulder, fearful that her arrest might be imminent.
The plot thickens when she can’t afford to fix her misfiring jalopy sorely in need of a tune-up. Most of the owners in the upscale neighborhood where the van is sitting would simply like to see the eyesore towed away from the block once and for all.
But, for some reason, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) feels compassion for the ostensibly overwhelmed octagenarian, perhaps because he has a mother also of advanced age. So, against his better judgment, the famous writer allows “Miss Shepherd” to park her disabled car in the driveway on the express understanding that this will be a temporary arrangement.
But Alan proves to be such a soft touch that the cantankerous old coot ends up squatting on his property for the next 15 years. Can a Tony Award-winning playwright and a feisty pensioner coexist peacefully in such crazy conditions?
That is the question at the heart of “The Lady in the Van,” a heartwarming dramedy inspired by actual events. The film was adapted from Bennett’s 1999 theatrical production of the same name which also starred Maggie Smith.
Smith looks oh so relaxed onscreen in the role she originated onstage, whether cadging for alms on the pavement or exhibiting pangs of remorse about the crash which left her in dire straits. Just as effective is Alex Jennings’ interpretation of Bennett as a terminally-conflicted soul constantly carrying on an inner dialogue with himself.
A touching tale of empathy blessed by a couple of equally-endearing performances that are nothing short of inspired.