Some 15 years after starring in the West End play of the same name, Maggie Smith returns to her role as the titular Lady in the Van, playing a real-life homeless woman known as Miss Shepherd, who parked the van she slept in on writer Alan Bennett’s street. Bennett, who’s played in the film version by Alex Jennings, offered to let Miss Shepherd move her van onto his driveway for a few weeks back in the early ‘70s. She ended up staying for 15 years.
Despite its title, The Lady In The Van tells more of Bennett’s story than Miss Shepherd’s, and Jennings often appears on screen as two Bennetts, carrying on long conversations and arguing with himself about the accuracy of his storytelling. Still, the film belongs to the 80-year-old Smith, who seems to be having the time of her life as the stubborn and odorous woman with delusions of grandeur, convinced that the Virgin Mary is speaking directly to her. She’s oblivious to her neighbors’ passive aggressive (and distinctly British) suggestions that she park her van elsewhere, and her van’s lack of a bathroom means that there are a lot of foul-smelling plastic bags left in Bennett’s driveway.
Miss Shepherd’s rudeness and personal hygiene deficits aside, Smith is intensely funny, whether she’s cheerfully painting her van bright yellow or terrorizing the local children. Even when the film reveals more of Miss Shepherd’s backstory, Smith’s grounded performance keeps it from feeling saccharine, and she brings both humor and poignancy to a role that could easily veer into bag lady caricature. If the real Miss Shepherd were any bit as fascinating as Smith’s portrayal, it’s easy to see why Bennett gave in and let her stay. B+