Review: Maggie Smith shines in ‘Lady in the Van’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

The obvious thing to praise in “The Lady in the Van” is Maggie Smith’s crusty-yet-endearing performance as an elderly homeless woman, part-mad, filthy and fully confident, yet wounded. It’s an extraordinary piece of physical acting made all the more marvelous by the contrast with the 81-year-old actress’s long running role as a stuffy British royal on “Downton Abbey.”

But Smith isn’t the only bright light in “Van.” There’s also Alex Jennings as the closeted playwright who becomes her benefactor and the bright, playful script, adapted by Alan Bennett from his own play and based on his real-life experience with Smith’s character.

It all starts innocently enough. Bennett, a rising author, moves into a quiet London neighborhood. And then a lady, Miss Shepherd, parks her run-down van on the street. From it she unpacks dozens of garbage bags filled with who knows what. Distracted and confused except when she’s not, Miss Shepherd becomes the neighborhood’s homeless vagabond.

Bennett begins speaking with her, both fascinated and repulsed. After a while, new parking regulations appear and she can no longer stay on the street. So Bennett lets her pull the van into his driveway.

And there it sits for 15 years, surrounded by garbage and feces, with the ornery Miss Shepherd never fully warming up to Bennett or approaching civility.

Bennett (“The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) doesn’t pretend to be fully accurate, and uses the play as a confessional vehicle of sorts, as two sides of his personality — the writer and the real person — bicker throughout. Jennings’ portrayal isn’t as flashy as Smith’s — the things she can do with just a glance — but the balance they achieve is absolutely glorious.

Tom Long is the former film critic

for The Detroit News

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘The Lady in the Van’

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for a brief unsettling image

Running time: 104 minutes