“The Lady in the Van” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:44, three stars out of four.
What would possess a man to not only help a homeless person, but to let that person live on his property for 15 years? Heroism? Selfessness? Generosity?
Timidness, Alan Bennett insists.
The British playwright and essayist really let a homeless woman park her van in his driveway for 15 years. He turned the experience into a play and now a movie, “The Lady in the Van,” in which the dyspeptic Bennett (played to a T by Alex Jennings) recoils at the notion that he’s being kind “It’s just easier,” he insists almost defensively to a neighbor. “It’s not kindness.” Sure.
The Lady is Miss Shepherd, a homeless woman who appears in her absolutely horrid green van on Bennett’s street in 1970 London. Played in a wonderfully funny and poignant performance by Maggie Smith, she’s imperious, disdainful, witty – not too different than the one Smith plays on “Downton Abbey.” Except that, instead of gazing down upon the rest of society as the Dowager Countess, the Lady is looking up from the bottom.
For a while, Bennett’s upwardly mobile neighbors are willing to overlook the Lady and her weird quirks, such as flying into a rage whenever she hears music being performed, or using old plastic bags as her toilet. But as their patience runs out, Bennett somehow finds himself agreeing to push the van up into his driveway, even though it’s the Lady who acts as if she’s doing him a favor.
The heart of this charming and poignant comedy from director Nicholas Hytner (who also adapted Bennett’s “The History Boys”) is the bickering kinship between Bennett and the Lady. As played by Jennings, Bennett is a certain sort of reticent, educated Brit, every sentence out of his mouth seemingly perfectly formed, always ending on a downward note of irony. Bennett’s screenplay neatly sums up his life by dividing Bennett into two people — the one who writes and the one who lives — who argue like an old married couple. The living Bennett is aghast that the writing Bennett takes such liberties with the facts in his writing; the writing Bennett is frustrating that the living Bennett won’t experience more, and give him more material to work with.
Into this orderly if schizophrenic life, the Lady steamrolls in, her words a torrent of repudiations, complaints and recollections that leaves Bennett speechless. Eventually, the two develop, if not a friendship, at least a kinship, and Bennett starts to look into the circumstances of the Lady’s life.
Some of this gets a little melodramatic, especially the suggestion that she’s running from a crime that a mysterious man (Jim Broadbent) is hounding her for. But other aspects of her life are rather poignant, suggesting the Lady is not just a “local character” but a woman who lived a full life, full of hopes and regrets.
At the end of the film, Bennett himself bikes in for a little cameo, putting a stamp and a flourish on “The Lady in the Van.” It’s a charming little movie about how, almost against their will, people can become better human beings to each other. It’s easier.