Are you having Maggie Smith withdrawal now that Downton Abbey has ended? Never fear! She’s starring in a quirky little dramedy in theaters now (though it won’t lose anything going to the small screen.) In The Lady in the Van she plays a character as far removed from Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham as one could imagine, but somehow there is still a haughty dowager quality to her homeless Miss Shepherd. She is Dame Maggie, after all. Set in 1974, the film is loosely based on the true story of a very damaged woman who took to living in her van following a traumatic accident and was canny enough to find a kind playwright who was willing to grant her access to his private off-street parking space and ultimately his life. Originally agreeing to a three week stay, she ended up there for 15 years, and the writer, Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George, The History Boys), turned that experience into a book about their unusual relationship, which he adapted first for the stage, then as a radio play, and now for this sweet, sad little film.
Miss Shepherd is no adorable little crazy lady. She has no appreciation for the writer’s kindness, nor that of the neighbors in this upper-middle class London neighborhood who stop by with gifts of food. Nor is she delighted by the music one particular family’s children love to play in the yard. But as the film moves along we discover that Miss Shepherd has a lot more to her than at first meets the eye. She’s a classically trained musician who is fluent in French and was once a novice nun. It’s just the kind of complex character Dame Maggie sinks her teeth into and won’t let go.
Alongside her story is that of the writer (Alex Jennings) who has made a great career using his family as fodder for award-winning plays. But Dad’s gone and Mum is going downhill, and he sees in Miss Shephard a new story to plumb. And as her sad life comes into focus over the years, he is surprised and fascinated by her, and ultimately there is an understanding of sorts between them.
The always amazing Dame Maggie Smith has played Miss Shepherd in all the iterations of this story (theater, radio, film) and has this character down! And Alex Jennings does a wonderful job as the writer who is split into two parts of himself in the film — the writer and the worldly him — who cleverly debate what to say and do about the woman in the yard. The Lady in the Van isn’t laugh out loud funny, but there are some extremely witty bits, and the character is tragic, but not in a weepy way. It is a great film for its look at homelessness in a one-block microcosm replete with liberal guilt and the sad deficiencies of public mental health care. But mainly it’s a great story, well told. I’d recommend this one to all audiences.