Old age—something universally feared with dread; and when The Lady in the Van starts, the lady (Smith) is kinda funny and kinda repulsive at the same time. There are two significant scenes in the beginning that are a bit mystifying, but all is made crystal clear in the end. One is a piano concert; the other an ear-piercing car crash.
We get mostly the down side of aging in the first part of The Lady in the Van, but stay with it because it becomes more and more interesting about the lady, as well as her “landlord”, Mr. Bennett (Alex Jennings). For instance, the lady’s name is Mary—or it could be Margaret—one of the many quirky details sprinkled throughout the movie. Similarly, since Bennett is known to talk/argue with himself constantly, he’s pictured as dual figures.
Mary/Margaret is a proud, eccentric woman who lives in her van and tries out different parking places on a street in Camden before she decides on the one out Bennett’s front door. She seems to despise music, so the house a few doors away with children paying musical instruments is definitely out. All the neighbors are watching and struggling with conflicting emotions toward the woman, antsy about which spot she will eventually choose. But consistent with her keen sensibilities about people, she chooses Bennett’s, which then becomes a continuous argument between his two selves about what to do about it. The agreement is that she will only park there temporarily.
Another clever device in the plot has to do with the parallels between Bennett’s own mother and Mary. Bennett’s mother is aging and gradually weakening, and he only grudgingly gives her as little as he can get by with. Ah, but Mary has a sneaky way of stealing into his good graces, as, for instance, getting him to allow her to park her van in his driveway—give or take a few years, say, 15.
Maggie Smith is so perfect for this role, this is her third rendition; she was previously in the 1999 original theatrical production and in the 2009 BBC adaptation of the play. As Bennett describes her character, she has “a bit of vagabond nobility about her.” So Smith’s range extends from the highly privileged dowager in television’s “Downton Abbey” to the role of a homeless old lady in this film—although the haughtiness, clever wit, and self-entitlement remain intact throughout. She is the consummate actress.
Direction (Nicholas Hytner), music (George Fenton), and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) round out the fine talent involved in this British production. It touches so many aspects of aging, caretaking, human foibles, and interests, its relevance is underscored.
The Lady in the Van is possibly someone you might like to know.