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The Lady in the Van

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Starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings

Maggie Smith, wonderfully caustic as the proper Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey, finds a far less grand location to explore a similarly commanding character in The Lady in the Van. She’s the eccentric Miss Shepherd in the fact-based story taken from Alan Bennett’s play about the mysterious woman who lived in a beat-up van parked in Bennett’s driveway. It was a temporary arrangement that lasted 15 years. With typical British appreciation for oddballs, Bennett (Alex Jennings) like his neighbours, feels a sense of responsibility for the strange old pack rat wrapped in heavy layers and smelling the worse for it who has landed on their quiet North London street. “She’ll be so grateful,” one of Bennett’s friends on the street (Frances de la Tour) observes after he reluctantly agrees to end Miss Shepherd’s nomadic curb side existence and give her a permanent parking spot. He also grudgingly grants access to his bathroom, which Miss Shepherd is not always inclined to use. Grateful? Not bloody likely. Miss Shepherd does not do gratitude. She is a private, unknowable woman and a very busy one at that, given to announcing she is dying before slamming her van door and pulling the curtains. A kind of uneasy détente is established between them and Bennett begins to tease out threads of Miss Shepherd’s life story. Why does classical music annoy her? Where did she learn to speak French? Who was she before she became a woman everyone in the street knows, but knows nothing about?

At the same time, Bennett navigates his mother’s aging and can’t help but see her changes through Miss Shepherd’s often-undignified struggles. Maggie Smith has played Miss Shepherd onstage and in a radio play and her intimate knowledge of this complex character keeps her well away from a clichéd version of a dotty old dear, blending wit, occasional joy and glimpses of darkness. Who hasn’t wondered about the woman pushing a brimming shopping cart crammed with bits and pieces down the main street or the man who thrusts a coffee cup up to a car window? Here is a movie to provide answers to one person’s life and a great actress to tell a worthy tale.

Rated PG 8 out of 10