There is indeed a lady and a van in “The Lady in the Van,” but the title is nonetheless misleading. It might more appropriately have been called “Playwright Alan Bennett and the Living, Breathing Human Being He Has Reduced to a Metaphor.”
Bennett (“The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) takes up so much room in the story that he devises a conceit by which he becomes two characters — the one who lives, and the one who writes. All those Bennetts mean that the poor lady is reduced soley to her significance in the writer’s life — what she taught him about himself, and what his tolerance of her and her maddening habits reflected about his own life.
The film tries to make the case that it’s not so much that Bennett was particularly kind or charitable, but rather that his veddy British habit of capitulating to overbearing people, rather than inviting them to sod off, led to his being encumbered with her presence. At the same time, we also see more snobbish and cruel neighbors treating this neighborhood nuisance with outright disdain, thus making Bennett into a paragon by comparison.
The lady is Miss Shepherd, played by Maggie Smith, and it is only the actress’ consummate skill that makes the movie as tolerable as it is. “The Lady in the Van” isn’t the first movie I’ve endured solely to watch Smith weave her particular brand of screen magic, but while something like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is benignly bland at worst, this movie made me more and more annoyed with its condescending attitude toward Miss Shepherd’s homelessness and her obvious mental instability. The film has a killer case of the cutes that only Smith’s acidity can cut, and only so much.
She first crosses Bennett’s path (played here by Alex Jennings, “The Queen”) in the early ’70s, when the playwright has just moved into a new house. Miss Shepherd parks her decrepit van in front of one house after another (we see the local residents hope deeply that their homes won’t be her next stopping place), and when Bennett lets her in one day to use the lavatory, the two begin an ongoing, prickly relationship.
Seeing that her van is subject to harassment from local vandals, Bennett eventually invites her to park in his driveway, and there she remains for years and years. We see a parade of social workers pop over — the first one is sort of helplessly tolerant, and the last one constantly criticizes Bennett for how he speaks to the woman he insists isn’t his charge — and we slowly get to know bits of her story and of the heartbreaks and circumstances that have led her to her current state.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, this “mostly true story” shuffles along from incident to incident, as characters age and Bennett’s mother (Gwen Taylor) succumbs to dementia and goes into assisted living. What it doesn’t do is to turn Miss Shepherd into her own woman; she’s just a prism, a device for Bennett, and while her journey might have been enough to sustain a feature film, his isn’t.
Is watching Smith act worth the act of sitting through the duration of “The Lady in the Van”? It depends on your level of devotion, but if you’re really hankering to see Dame Maggie be cross and contrary with some overly-polite Brits, the new season of “Downton Abbey” kicks off very soon in the U.S.