In 1970, playwright Alan Bennett, fresh on the heels of his first big West End success, moved to a charming street in Camden where he planned to quietly write, sometimes entertain male guests, accept the occasional visit from his Mother, ride his bike to and fro, and in general mind his own business. Coinciding with his arrival, an old transient (that’s a nice way to say homeless, apparently) in a van of questionable provenance/future arrived to the same street. Then she parked in front of his house. Then she parked inside his driveway. Then … she stayed there for 15 years.
The Lady In The Van is, as the opening title informs us, a “mostly true story” about their unlikely bond, and the permanent effects this relationship had on Bennett and, in fact, everyone on that street.
On the surface, it is not a movie that in any way, shape, or form makes sense. And it probably wouldn’t get made in Hollywood. You can just imagine the pitch: “We have a 81-year old homeless woman with incontinence problems, a gross old van, a repressed middle aged homosexual, and a pile of middle aged upper middle class busybodies. There is a lot of stink and shit jokes. Whaddaya say, Johnson?” Luckily for us, England, riding a wave of both successful Bennett play adaptations (The Madness of King George, The History Boys), the elderly movie cottage industry, and Maggie Smith’s need to be working 24/7 despite the fact that she is in her 80s, said yes to that pitch and the film got made.
This is good news for us, because The Lady In The Van is wonderful. And not just in a “how cute is this old woman” way that got us suckered into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but in that truly special, life-affirming, quality filmmaking and performance way that we seek in the dark of a movie theatre, and which, so often eludes us as an audience.
Maggie Smith, naturally, is the cornerstone of it all. Sixty years into her career, and nearly 50 years since she won the first of her two Academy Awards for The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, Smith not only still has it, she has evolved into an acting genre all her own. Her Margaret Shepherd is a woman with a past (a past she is not willing to share), and a woman with a present (she’s very busy, as she is wont to tell anyone who attempts to suggest otherwise), and woman with a future (she’s dying, possibly, though not imminently). And between curmudgeonly remarks, wisecracking old Catholic jokes, Smith manages to convey it all, in a gentle, subtle, heartbreaking way. Her saucer eyes flit and move across the screen with the alertness of a much younger performer, but it is when Margaret allows herself to close them that the viewer really gets to feel her, and the pain she has been carrying in her for decades.
Alex Jennings, a mainstay of classic British television, is a wonderful, stoic, long-suffering counterpart to Margaret’s chutzpah, playing a dual role: the writer and the human living the life the writer is writing about. This decision to allow the narrator’s internal life to interact actively with his external one could have proven to be a risky one, but Nicholas Hytner has made a career for himself adapting plays into surprisingly effective movies, and here proves up to the task. Bennett (the writer) and Bennett (the human) both struggle with their relationships with the elderly humans in their life, be it Bennett’s mother, or Margaret, and allowing the viewer to see them both almost as individual characters, adds a depth to the story. This creates tension that transcends plain good old-fashioned storytelling, so once the Margaret’s true story is revealed, we realize she deserved something special.
Go see this movie.