Arts & Culture

Maggie Smith captivates as ‘Lady in the Van’

Based on real-life story, film chronicles writer’s most enduring, reluctant friendship

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Maggie Smith has built her career playing characters with a defining air of dignity and nobility. From Harry Potter’s Minerva McGonagall to Violet Crawley in “Downton Abbey,” Smith crafts characterizations that are preeminent at their very core.

In “The Lady in the Van,” Smith once again employs this emanating kind of nobility in her portrayal of Mary Shepherd, this time with a twist of irony — despite Shepherd’s brand of ennobled entitlement, she is homeless. Her character lives out of a decaying van permanently parked in an otherwise idyllically middle-class Camden neighborhood, and Smith perfectly portrays the curmudgeonly neighborhood menace. She yells at any  “neighbors” who dare play music loudly enough to disturb her in her van.

This performance marks the third time Smith has portrayed Shepherd.  She previously acted in the same role in a theatrical production in 1999 as well as in a BBC Radio 4 performance in 2009. Her experience in the role is evident — it is hard to imagine anyone else who could portray Shepherd’s particular kind of “vagabond nobility.”

Written by Alan Bennett, “The Lady in the Van” is based off Bennett’s relationship with the real-life Shepherd, who — like her counterpart in the movie — ended up living in a van parked in Bennett’s driveway for over 15 years.

In the film, Bennett is portrayed by Alex Jennings. Jennings’ character is split into two personalities that act against each other in the same scenes. The introverted “writer-Bennett,” who offers a meta-commentary of the film’s events as a discontented observer, appears solely as he is writing at his typewriter. His other character, the “living-Bennett,” appears in the entirety of the film but doesn’t actually live a full life, as the writer-Bennett tells the audience.

In the film, Bennett’s relationship with Shepherd starts with the first of many impositions when she convinces him to roll her defective van into the Camden neighborhood where Bennett eventually purchases a home. The combination of parking restrictions and Bennett’s fascination for and disdain of Shepherd compels him to consent  to park the van in his driveway — a temporary arrangement that develops into a permanent one.

Despite Bennett’s disdain, he slowly develops a respect and understanding for Sheperd as she unfolds her past. Bennett eventually starts comparing Sheperd to his mother. The two characters enhance each other — Bennett’s mother provides stability at his home in northern England, whereas Sheperd brings a peculiar maternal presence at his new residence in London.

The interplay between neurotic Bennett and unpredictably erratic Shepherd creates much of the film’s humor. Jennings’ discomfort and Smith’s unapologetic brashness are endlessly entertaining. While “The Lady in the Van” might not make you laugh out loud, it’s the kind of film that will put a smile on your face no matter what mood you watch it in — it serves as a fitting and loving tribute to its real-life inspiration.


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