I really do enjoy Dame Maggie Smith as an actress. Since I first saw her as Professor MacGonagall in the Harry Potter films, I’ve immensely enjoyed her embittered old woman shtick, particularly during the six year run of Downton Abbey. So I was understandably intrigued by The Lady in the Van, a film billed as a Maggie Smith vehicle, potentially her last as she seemingly edges toward retirement. Unfortunately, I have to deliver the news that The Lady in the Van is not all that great a film to possibly end Dame Smith’s career on, perhaps because her talent isn’t allowed to star in it.
Ostensibly based on true events, the film follows Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and his relationship with an old homeless woman who drives around parking her van on his street. Her name is Mary Shepherd (Dame Smith), and her general cantankerous nature and disheveled appearance does not ingratiate her with the local middle-upper class residents of the neighborhood. When the police finally place a notice on her van to move, and she has nowhere else to go, Alan invites Mary to park her van in his driveway until she can get her affairs in order. She continues to stay for the next fifteen years, mostly due to Alan’s ambivalence to her comings and goings.
Dame Smith is, as per usual, a fun presence on screen, exaggeratedly curmudgeon-y and incredibly heartfelt when the moment calls for it. That’s why it’s a pity that the screenwriter, the autobiographical Alan Bennett, chooses to focus on himself rather than on his title character. He’s an author by trade and he takes every opportunity to tell you so, using alliterative turns of phrase in forced voiceovers that only ever expound on his boring, uninteresting feelings. He acts as a constant reminder of the film’s themes, drawing parallels between Mary and his own mother whom he must care for, and drawing distinctions between the fiction of the film and the reality of actual events. It’s an artistic choice that is meant to come across as endearing but is instead tedious and redundant, hammering home concepts that could readily speak for themselves.
But perhaps most baffling is the insistence on Alan being portrayed as two characters by the same actor: “the one who lives” and “the one who writes.” The two are both portrayed by Alex Jennings, who isn’t necessarily a bad actor, but the character’s lack of charisma does not make his masturbatory conversations at all entertaining to observe. No other character ever sees Writer Alan, so these exchanges between the divergent aspects of Alan’s personality only serve as a pretentious way to portray his authorial inner monologue and highlight his character growth, though his character isn’t the interesting one. Revelations about Mary’s past are practically an afterthought, a minor mystery that should have been an investigative focus of an actually interesting person’s life.
The result is a film that feels like a poor imitation of the works of Charlie Kaufman: a high concept gimmick that doesn’t have any high concepts to support it. Alan Bennett’s telling of Mary Shepherd’s life is ultimately narcissistic to the point where it likely doesn’t do justice to the real woman, and it certainly does not do justice to Dame Maggie Smith’s performance. I don’t blame Dame Smith for the film’s shortcomings, but I do hope that this is not the last role we see her in, for that would be the greatest tragedy of all.