Rare is it that an actor today can have a more successful career after the age of 50 than before. It has been well documented about the dearth of quality roles for older actors and that is doubly true for women. There are those rare exceptions, however. And they tend to be British actresses who had great careers on the stage. Judy Dench and Maggie Smith both spring to mind. Both have become recognized and celebrated actresses in film late in their careers. This brings me around to The Lady in the Van which stars Maggie Smith. It is one of those roles in which you cannot picture anyone else in. She does that good a job. I do not think it is overstating it to say that the lady is a national treasure.
The film is largely based on a true story and was a play before being brought to the big screen. Of course, Maggie Smith played the role of Miss Shepherd in the play as well. It is only through her immense talent that this dirty, odd and curmudgeonly lady becomes somehow likeable. You get used to the hoarding, her lack of personal hygiene and her short way with people. Even overlook it due to the burgeoning friendship she forges with the equally left of centre Alan Bennett.
Writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings – The Queen, Babel) is pleased as punch when he is able to buy a house in Camden Town on a nice quiet street. Little does he know that this is all going to change due to arrival of a van containing an elderly lady. Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith – from television’s Downton Abbey) arrives in her dilapidated van on the street and proceeds to park in front of different addresses for a spell. She lives in her van and is eccentric, difficult and, to be honest, a little frightening.
When the residents of the street have had enough of her being there and taking up a lot of space they make her aware that she is no longer welcome. Not sure what to do she manipulates Bennett into allowing her to “temporarily” park in his driveway. This temporary situation lasts fifteen years. During that time both of their lives are changed.
This is a small film that moves along at a realistic pace with plenty of dialogue. Do not take it to mean that the film is slow. There are several mysteries tied in to the strange old woman living in a van that keep you interested and wanting to learn more. Little bits of her life are revealed in conversations or flashbacks throughout the film. Another interesting technique the film employs is the division of Alan Bennett into two. We get Alan Bennett the mousy writer and another one who has more of a backbone and says what the writer doesn’t have the courage to. This choice could have been a disaster, but really comes off nicely.
-Feature Commentary with Nicholas Hytner
-The Making of The Lady in the Van
-The Visual Effects
-Previews of Tobaccofree.com, Truth, Grandma, Son of Saul, I Saw the Light, Dark Horse