'The Lady in the Van': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Dame Maggie delivers an award-worthy turn in this witty dark comedy.

Maggie Smith reprises her acclaimed stage performance in Nicholas Hytner's screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's play.

We're informed at the beginning of Nicholas Hytner's screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's 1999 play that it's "a mostly true story." Figuring out what is true and what isn't is one of the pleasures of The Lady in the Van, but the foremost one is watching Maggie Smith gloriously reprising her acclaimed stage performance. The veteran actress should be garnering plenty of attention at awards time for this film, which is being released by Sony Pictures Classics.

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The story, which begins in 1970, concerns Miss Shepherd (Smith), a dotty, homeless old woman who lived in a broken-down yellow van parked in the playwright's driveway at his North London home for 15 years. Indulging her presence out of some combination of charity, morbid fascination and passivity, Bennett also couldn't help but see the dramatic and comedic potential of the situation.

The uncomfortable relationship between life and art is a principal theme of the film, one that is dramatized by the presence of two Bennetts, both expertly played by Alex Jennings. One of them participates in the action while the other observes and sardonically comments on it.

"I live, you write, that's how it works," one Bennett says to the other.

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It's a device that worked better on stage than on film, despite the cinematic advantage of being able to have one actor in both roles. (To further accentuate the meta-theatrical aspect, Jennings has appeared onstage playing Bennett in another play, and is briefly seen in this film performing a monologue from the playwright's Talking Heads). Although the exchanges between the two versions of the character provide the film with some of its sharpest moments, they inevitably exude a stagey artificiality that proves distracting.

But it's Smith's eccentric oldster who is the film's driving force, and the 80-year-old actress doesn't disappoint. Not surprisingly, she fully exploits the humor in her character's bizarreness, reaping much comic mileage from her proclamation that she receives guidance from the Virgin Mary; her utter obliviousness to her lack of personal hygiene; her hatred of music that sends her fleeing whenever she hears a note; and her ragtag wardrobe that's been assembled from various dumpsters.

Besides mining the humor, Smith also subtly conveys the emotional pain and desperation of the addled old woman, especially in the scenes in which she's taken away by social services and gently treated to a thorough washing, feeding and medical examination. The character's backstory is ultimately revealed in an encounter between Bennett and her older brother that movingly illustrates how anyone's life can turn on a dime if afflicted with mental illness.

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Although also based on fact, a subplot involving Miss Shepherd's apparently causing the hit-and-run death of a motorcyclist adds little to the proceedings other than to provide an opportunity for a striking, if brief, appearance by Jim Broadbent. The supporting players include a number of esteemed British stage actors including Frances de la Tour (playing the wife of composer Vaughan Williams) and Roger Allam, as well as James Corden in a cameo.

This marks the third collaboration between the scripter and director, who previously worked together on both the stage and screen versions of The Madness of King George III and The History Boys. The results are as assured as you might expect, with further verisimilitude provided by shooting the film on the very street and inside the actual house in which the real events took place.

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Production: BBC Films, TriStar Productions

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Screenwriter: Alan Bennett

Producers: Kevin Loader, Nicholas Hytner, Damian Jones

Executive producers: Christine Langan, Ed Wethered, Charles Moore, Miles Ketley

Director of photography: Andrew Dunn

Production designer: John Beard

Editor: Tariq Anwar

Costume designer: Natalie Ward

Composer: George Fenton

Casting: Toby Whale

Not rated, 103 min.

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