The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith saves the day in this story of a British vagrant living in her car

Maggie Smith in 'The Lady in the Van' Credit: Nicola Dove/Sony

Maggie Smith can do anything — even save this rickety vehicle from a case of the terminal cutes. Now ending her memorable run as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, Smith has picked herself another juicy acting plum. She's playing Mary Shepherd, a decidedly unsanitary and unlovable vagrant who parked her dilapidated van in a North London driveway in 1973 and for 15 years refused to budge.

It's a "mostly true story," according to playwright Alan Bennett, who owned the driveway in question and wrote a memoir and a play about Shepherd. Now Bennett's written the movie. Alex Jennings plays him as an eccentric who’s exasperated by Shepherd's antics — she leaves her shit in plastic bags outside her van — but can't really turn the old dearie out. That's the plot. Nicholas Hytner, who directed the film versions of two better Bennett plays, The Madness of King George and The History Boys, does the honors again here. But this time his job is mostly to stay out of Dame Maggie's way. Did he have a choice?

Look, it's fun to watch Shepherd hate on bratty children, classical music and liberal pieties. Smith's acid tongue makes any line sound better. But the subplot about a blackmailer (Jim Broadbent) who terrorizes Shepherd in the dead of night adds nothing, least of all a purpose. Things stretch to the snapping point when Bennett starts arguing with himself — right, we see double — about what to do with the old lady and a backstory creeps in about why Shepherd deserves our tears. I'll take bitchery over curdled whimsy any day. I only wish the movie felt the same.