M FILM – The Prime of Miss Maggie Smith

The same actor who performed the homeless Mary Shepherd on the London stage nearly two decades ago reprises her role

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

COMING SOON:

London Has Fallen

The funeral for the British Prime Minister is the focus for a terrorist organization planning to assassinate many of the world’s most powerful leaders. Happily, well-muscled actors like Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler are on hand to thump the baddies.

The Brothers Grimsby

In this promising spy spoof, an elite British agent (Mark Strong) is forced to go on the run with his long-lost brother (Sacha Baron Cohen), who just happens to be a complete idiot of a soccer hooligan.

Allegiant

The latest installment of the popular Divergent series returns to a dystopic future world where Shallene Woodley and Miles Teller try to overthrow the totalitarian Bureau of Genetic Welfare.

Eddie The Eagle

Hugh Jackman stars in the comedic true-life tale of the unlikely but courageous British ski-jumper who defied the skeptics and made a huge name for himself at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Triple 9

Dirty cops are blackmailed by the Russian mob into attempting a nearly impossible heist. The great cast includes Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Casey Affleck, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

 

 

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