Dame Maggie Smith veers from her typically aristocratic roles in “The Lady in the Van,” a true story about Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, and Miss Shepard, a homeless woman who parked her dilapidated van in his driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. Fans of Alan Bennett, movie’s writer and protagonist, will probably like this movie, but if his work isn’t on your radar this may not be the film for you.
Despite not being in a castle, Smith doles out her typical sharp tongue and strong nature in full force as her character masters being fiercely obstinate in a way that only the British can deliver. She throws about orders in her shrill voice in such a way where it’s clear she expects them to be followed, and the thing is people do. Bennett certainly does, although he spends a decent amount of the movie complaining about it.
The film has its funny moments, but the plot unfolds very strangely leaving the viewer a bit confused. The major plot about the relationship between Miss Shepard and Alex Bennett spans 15 years, but the whole time this plot is intermingled with scenes from Miss Shepard’s younger years and the incident that left her homeless.
It took too long to discover who Miss Shepard was before becoming the lady in the van and how she wound up living out of that van. Also most of the reveal – which would have added a great deal to the character – was delivered in essentially one scene, told to Bennett by Miss Shepard estranged brother who we have just met and have no connection to.
Miss Shepard is lovable because Maggie Smith is lovable and is a pseudo-grandmother for the Harry Potter generation. Bennett talks to himself the whole movie, which makes the viewer wonder if he is just eccentric or genuinely schizophrenic for most of the movie. The idea is that it is his real-self talking to his writer-self. It could have been pulled off but there is a layer of resentment between the two sides and it adds more confusion to what is actually going on.
The ending was the culmination of this confusion. The vague feeling of “what the hell is going on” that brews throughout the movie erupts in the scene where Miss Shepard ascends into heaven in a comically random way.
An illustrated God reminiscent of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail animations emerges from the clouds and she floats angelically into the golden clouds which then close and the scene returns to a dreary London graveyard. It was out of the blue. It was almost funny but, just like the rest of the movie, it took itself too seriously to actually get laughs.
Smith played the aging British woman with an air of nobility only she can deliver. Jennings portrayed Alan Bennett very well. But problem wasn’t the acting, it was the story itself and how that was put together that was confusing. If you’re debating watching “The Lady in the Van.” keep driving.