If you’ve heard anything about The Lady in the Van, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think Maggie Smith is fucking fantastic. In this “mostly true story” written by celebrated playwright Alan Bennett, Smith portrays Miss Shepherd, a homeless woman who parked her van in Bennett’s driveway for 15 years. Smith’s demeanor and turns of mood are convincing and complicated. Her face, expressive as always, works especially hard during her many scenes shot inside the van. And it doesn’t rest entirely on her acting—the character, first performed by Smith onstage in London in 1999, is written beautifully, revealed slowly in layers over the course of the film.
However, The Lady in the Van has a second plotline, and it’s far less enchanting. Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, is split up into two characters (one for living, one for writing), and the audience is forced to watch the playwright construct the work… and justify his decision to write about Miss Shepherd in the first place.
Bennett is known for pushing boundaries in terms of perspective and smartly self-conscious writing, but in this case, it feels like a crutch that should have been abandoned in an early draft. There are a few intriguing parts of the Bennett duo—his quiet gay romances, necessarily hushed for the time and place, and his relationship with the homeless woman he knew as Miss Mary Shepherd—but most of the character, and Jennings’s performance, comes off as cookie cutter “mopey writer.” (Even personally identifying with the mopey writer trope didn’t make it engaging.) The oddest of the story lines revolves around Bennett and his mother, and it appears as a thin, desperate attempt to make Miss Shepherd’s continued presence a plot point in Bennett’s own narrative.
Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd is plenty on her own. Going into the theater, I was nervous that viewers would find her hilarious for the wrong reasons—that her pained, contorted face and dirty rags would be the punch line. And they were sometimes the punch line, along with jokes about her shit and hygiene—but the moments of real humor were in her interactions with various residents and passersby. Well-meaning neighbors, just wanting to brighten the homeless woman’s day, have to stand back in shock as she scoffs at their attempts. From inside her van, she reluctantly accepts visitors, but with the caveat that she is a very busy woman with other fish to fry.
After receiving a gift, she exclaims “FLOWERS?” indignantly. “I’ve got enough on my plate without flowers!” The joke isn’t that she’s homeless and has nothing better to do, but about the preconceived notions the residents of the street have about her—that she’ll welcome their advances, and that she’ll be grateful for everything that they reluctantly offer her. The best conflict on that quiet street in Camden Town is between Miss Shepherd and her intrusive, noisy neighbors.
While watching The Lady in the Van, focus on the lady in the van. Don’t dwell on the overwrought self-consciousness, and god forbid, don’t watch this movie expecting a summary depiction of homelessness. Just take in Maggie Smith’s face as it twists into panic and sorrow and glee, and enjoy the movie version of an intelligent theatrical production decades in the making.