The Lady in the Van is Well-Written and Diverting

Directed by Nicholas Hynter
TriStar, 104 minutes, PG-13
* * *

If you're tired of seeing Maggie Smith as a dowager aristocrat, The Lady in the Van ought to do the trick. In this one Smith is a begrimed transient who reeks of excrement and is crazier than a Southern white boy in a Mexican restaurant. The film is a reprisal of a 1999 London theatre production of a play written by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hynter for which Ms. Smith won an Olivier Award for Best Actress. It doesn't work as well on the screen, but it's a diverting way to wile away an evening.

The set up is quintessentially English on many levels. It takes place during the years 1974-1989, when playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) lived in Camden, a London neighborhood caught between Thatcher-era gentrification and callousness and older laws that, among other things, did not allow toffs to exile transients legally parked in their leafy neighborhoods. Through a series of events, one of them­–Mary Shepherd/Fairchild (Smith)–ends up camped in Bennett's driveway for 15 years. The film is partly about Bennett's developing relationship with Mary, but it's also about a few things very British indeed: social class relations, surface niceness and inner hypocrisy, muddling through, duty versus desire, and never quite mustering the courage to say or do what one truly wishes. Bennett cleverly expresses the last of these by bifurcating himself; that is, we see two Bennetts–call them Id and Superego–debating each other over questions of the Alan Bennett public mask versus the inner repressed Bennett. The tip of the iceberg is that he's a closeted gay milquetoast writing mannered plays, but would like to be assertive, out of the closet, and tackling issues that he cares about.

Mary is a pungent, sharp-tongued, and earthy challenge to all things repressive–except her own guilt. It gives away nothing to say that she was once a piano prodigy, but some things went very wrong and diverted her path. (You'll learn this almost right away.) Mix an overdose of Catholic sin to British reserve and you've pretty much poisoned chances for a happy adulthood. But I shan't spoil the details.

As a film, this probably works better as the play it once was. The screen adds little except to heighten a sense of Mary's grossness.  That's not altogether a good thing as it occasionally makes it harder to see her humanity. Sometimes the most fun is picking out things in the background, like the fact that most of the original cast of Bennett's The History Boys appear in cameos, including Dominic Cooper, James Corden, and Frances de la Tour.  Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent and Deborah Findlay also appear in minor roles; hence, like nearly all English films, the acting is uniformly top drawer. But expect the pacing, dialogue, and mannered expressions of the stage. Not a lot actually happens, though much is revealed. Is this a great film? No; but it's Alan Bennett, so you know the script will be good.  And who can resist a stinky Maggie Smith?      Rob Weir

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