Attention “Downton Abbey” fans: If you’re planning to see “The Lady in the Van” in the hope of watching Maggie Smith deliver yet another impeccable riff on aristocratic manners, you might need an expectation adjustment. Here, Dame Maggie has downsized considerably, playing a woman grappling with homelessness, dementia and physical decline, all within the environs of the cramped vehicle she precariously inhabits on the modestly posh streets of north London.
On second thought, never mind. As Mary Shepherd, the irascible, imperious, often amusingly confounding title character, Smith summons an impressive amount of the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s native hauteur. Smith’s career of late has been largely devoted to making otherwise off-putting cold fish disarmingly likable, delivering put-downs with such offhanded lethality that their victims get a good 50 yards before they realize they’ve been touched, let alone garroted.
Smith’s skills stand her in good stead as Shepherd, whom we meet briefly as a younger woman before the main plot of “Lady” kicks in. That’s when the playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moves to Camden in the 1970s and first meets Miss Shepherd, who mysteriously appears in her scruffy improvised mobile home, moving from one curb to the next, depending on which homeowner in the rapidly gentrifying district is giving her the most trouble.
Bennett – best known for his play “The History Boys” and its movie adaptation – takes up a writerly, somewhat opportunistic fascination with the eccentric woman, whose daily machinations and perpetual dyspepsia make for a conveniently distracting sideshow to his own isolation. He invites her to move the van into his driveway, where she will stay for 15 years, in an arrangement that suggests a particularly pungent (literally and figuratively) version of “The Odd Couple.”
Lest viewers think the setup too cute for words, not to mention credulity, Miss Shepherd really existed. “The Lady In the Van” is based on Bennett’s memoir of their real-life relationship, as well as his own adaptation of the story for the stage.
The film version, which like the play was directed by Nicholas Hytner, bears all the confidence and assurance of a well-rehearsed story. Not only did Smith star in the 1999 stage production (and a later radio play), but Jennings has played Bennett once before as well.
The result is a comfortable, expertly calibrated two-hander whose pleasures include watching gifted actors play with and off one another with practiced ease. Although “The Lady In the Van” can’t help but be a Maggie Smith Production, Jennings delivers a wise, delightful turn as an artist whose motivations aren’t entirely cynical, but aren’t exactly altruistic, either.
The question of whether Bennett is using Miss Shepherd’s distress for his own ends as a good story is raised literally by the conceit of having his alter-ego appear on screen alongside him, a piece of visual legerdemain that Jennings handles with understated aplomb (he plays both Bennetts). As “The Lady In the Van” progresses, the audience is made privy to a few more clues, not only to the circumstances that led her to such a provisional existence, but to the issues that bedevil the lonely, somewhat thwarted Bennett. Filmed in the playwright’s former home in Camden, the movie immerses the audience not just in an extraordinary instance of two lives intersecting, but in the social history of a city undergoing enormous change, as one of its working-class precincts subtly begins to turn into a well-heeled bohemian enclave.
To its credit, “The Lady in the Van” largely avoids sentimentalizing Miss Shepherd’s mental illness and poverty, which no amount of tart bravado can obscure. And thankfully, Bennett and Hytner steer clear of the tough-codger adorability that has turned similar characters into patronizing stereotypes.
Still, there are a few discordant moments, especially a magical-realist flourish toward the end that seeks to pay homage to the literalistic spiritual life that gave her as much angst as comfort. What’s more, Bennett admits at the film’s outset that “The Lady in the Van” is only partly true, leaving it to viewers to speculate on just how much he has softened and elided for the audience’s (and his own) benefit.
These caveats aside, there’s no denying the humor and pathos of “The Lady in the Van,” just as there’s no use fending off the force of nature that is Smith. Sensitive and formidable, self-deprecating and brave, she elevates every role she’s in, as we know by now. That turns out to be true, even when that role puts her in the gutter.
Three stars. Rated PG-13. Contains a brief, unsettling image. 103 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.