Who doesn’t love Dame Maggie Smith? I truly don’t think there is anyone quite like her. Consider that she has had a career for over half a century now, and with so many iconic performances under her belt, she has every right to rest on her laurels. However, considering that she shows absolutely no sign of stopping any time soon, Maggie Smith is an actress to be celebrated and adored, and the fact that at the age of 81, she is still capable of having incredible roles such as The Lady in the Van is a testament to her longevity, her talent and her good-old-fashioned cojones. I dearly hope this isn’t Dame Maggie’s last great performance, but if it happens to be, it will be one of her very best performances, and dare I call this her best performance in decades?
The film, adapted from the play/autobiography of noted playwright Alan Bennett, the film shows Bennett in the central role (played wonderfully by the criminally underrated Alex Jennings), who moves to Camden town and is dismayed to discover that a certain elderly hermit named Mary Shepherd (Smith) has moved in with her van nearby, and very soon moves into Bennett’s driveway. She intends to stay only for a few months, but ends up being in Bennett’s driveway and life for fifteen years, which is clearly a tumultuous and difficult time for Bennett, who has to deal with a foul-mouthed, bitter and slightly senile old woman that forces herself into his prim and proper existence in the quaint London suburb.
The Lady in the Van is such a charming film, but it isn’t something extraordinarily unique – there are quaint and quirky little British comedies that come out every year. I can name over a dozen just off the top of my head. They are reliable, because they are always very funny, and they can lure some notable performers into the lead roles, and audiences always respond to them, because it is always pleasant to see performers of a certain age in such great roles. They are so popular, and while I don’t think a film like The Lady in the Van is entirely unique, it is a very effective formula that I, and many others, adore. However, that isn’t to say that The Lady in the Van is completely unoriginal – because beneath its formulaic sheen, there is something far deeper and much more emotionally resonant, which is another reason why films such as this do so well – they touch you on so many different levels, and even if you can’t relate to them per se, they are a very good time and thoroughly enjoyable.
Once again, I will reiterate this statement – Maggie Smith is absolutely amazing in the title role. I have been a fan of her for so many years, and I have never seen her commit to a role quite like she did here. She has begun to be typecast as these vaguely sassy but dignified old women in various social situations, and while it can be a bore in some cases (looking at you, Downton Abbey), it is often very effective, if not slightly predictable. It is impossible to deny that Smith plays that same kind of role here…in a way. It begins to appear as if it is another role similar to those in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Quartet, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, as they film progresses, her performance becomes far more nuanced and deep than anything we’ve seen her do in years. It almost seems as if she is aware of her typecasting, and is ensuring that she adds depth and meaning to an already fantastic performance. It also helps that Smith has played this role twice before – on stage and on radio. She inhabits this role perfectly, and it shows, because her performance is just truly remarkable.
However, Maggie Smith might give the performance of her career, but that doesn’t mean that the others around her are slouches either. Alex Jennings is fantastic as Alan Bennett, and is really effective at playing the quiet and reserved, but also deeply troubled protagonist. Jennings gives a performance that often threatens to overshadow Smith’s performance (which is a very difficult task, obviously). He holds his own, and he does a great job. I know Maggie Smith is the be-all-and-end-all of this film, but to be perfectly frank, Jennings deserves to share that spotlight with her. They are a fantastic pair, and their chemistry is wonderful. Smaller roles by Frances De La Tour, Jim Broadbent and some other theater actors in the Bennett repertory are great as well.
The Lady in the Van is such a great film. It is hilarious, entertaining and a great little comedy that will leave you feeling some interesting emotions. If this film hasn’t made you laugh and cry at some point throughout it, then something is seriously wrong. It is such a great film, and Smith has never been better. She is certainly a rival to Charlotte Rampling for my favorite performance of the year. This film is just so brilliant, and is absolutely worth every bit of acclaim it has achieved. Fantastic work, from beginning to end.