The plight of the homeless has never been more visible – or controversial – in Victoria, so the timing is perfect for the release of The Lady in the Van, an autobiographical dramedy from celebrated English playwright Alan Bennett.
A resident of a yuppified neighbourhood in North London in the mid-1970s, Bennett reluctantly found himself allowing an elderly homeless woman to park her live-in van in his unused driveway. It was a supposedly temporary kindness that dragged on for 15 fraught years, as Bennett passively endured the abuse, manipulations, unsanitary lifestyle, and bracingly ripe aromas of his stubborn and cantankerous “guest.”
Their unusual relationship inspired Bennett to write what became a popular 1999 stage play, and has now been adapted into a movie of the same name. And rather perfectly, the same actor who performed the homeless Mary Shepherd on the London stage nearly two decades ago reprises her role as the memorably cranky vagabond. And so we have the sublime Maggie Smith, currently lionized for her role as the dagger-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, here sliding way down to the bottom of the social ladder to totter about in a performance that is touching but marvelously unsentimental.
Alan Jennings co-stars as the hapless Bennett, and in the film there are two of him: the author who sits at the typewriter or sometimes bicycles off to perform a monologue in the West End, and the non-writerly half who worries about not having much of a life. As the two Bennetts squabble gently – and amusingly – between themselves, the movie examines the motivations of this diffident, thoughtful and self-critical author whose main challenge in life, other than Mary, is his aging mother, who continues a lifetime of fussing over him with clumsy maternal solicitude.
The cast includes various droll neighbours, a blackmailer and a pushy social worker who enjoys bullying Bennett. But Mary is the movie’s star, and a mysterious one: she is upset by classical music, is on the run from the police, and is a devout Catholic in continual need of absolution. As Lady unfolds we gradually learn her secrets, and by the end of the film are ready to agree with Bennett when he declares that Mary was by far the most interesting person in the neighbourhood.
The Lady in the Van *** 1/2
Stars Maggie Smith and Alan Jennings
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
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