The Lady in the Van

I just saw Dame Maggie Smith turn in a performance that would put to shame every single actress nominated for Best Actress in this year's Oscar race. (Smith has already won two Oscars!) Director Nicholas Hytner ("The History Boys"), working with the man who LIVED the story, brings us a memorable (and mostly true) character who deserves our attention.

"The Lady in the Van" is one of those small, quirky, dramedies that the British do so well. This time we aren't in some picturesque backwater hamlet, but instead in the Camden district of London, a stable, close-knit neighborhood that seems filled to the brim with thoughtful, generous people. Alan Bennett is a fairly reclusive resident of this neighborhood although he knows his neighbors and is on friendly terms with them. We discover right away that we'll see TWO Alan Bennetts: One writes stories and plays, the other goes out in the world and hesitantly gets involved. They talk to one another!

Here is most of the cast:
  • Alex Jennings ("Cranford") plays Alan Bennett, the real-life playwright who was inveigled by this dotty old homeless woman into allowing her to park her van in his driveway...for fifteen years! We watch it evolve in a natural way, it's not a brilliant flash of generosity.
  • Maggie Smith ("Downton Abbey") is Miss Shepherd: dirty, rude, smelly, and exasperating. We very quickly suspect there is more to her than meets the eye, but you never heard it from HER! She insists on using Mr. Bennett's lavatory, so the neighbors wonder if that gives her squatter's rights.
  • Roger Allam ("The Angels' Share") is Rufus, one of those tolerant neighbors. I keep thinking this guy will call the authorities, but he is far more patient than I expected.
  • Deborah Findlay ("National Theatre Live: Coriolanus") is his wife Pauline. She is curious, kind and flexible. The neighbors bring our heroine food, they have their children bring her Christmas gifts, and they try to serenade her (THAT doesn't work out well at ALL!).
  • Jim Broadbent ("War & Peace" 2016) Retired Police Officer Underwood only shows up three times in the entire film, but it is his explanation about the motorcycle that brings clarity to Bennett's story.
We watch children in the neighborhood grow up, see Miss Shepherd's disreputable old van replaced by a generous benefactor (and the new one painted that same hideous yellow), see her make some mysterious trips out of town and watch her social worker blame poor Mr. Bennett for her condition!

I won't say any more, but please try to catch this one or buy the DVD when it becomes available. It's certainly worthwhile.
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You can practically smell Dame Maggie!
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