Viewers who want to see Maggie Smith play a homeless ex-nun concert pianist will be pleased with this vehicle tuned-up to show her talent. The crusty, pecking fire-brand is true to form. Viewers will not be as pleased with the guilt-ridden back story cum road murder mystery which seems contrived and unnecessary. The real story centers on a gay playwright who allows her to park her van in his driveway for fifteen years.
Director Nicholas Hytner tells us this is “mostly a true story” so we settle in with “The Lady In The Van” and expect some tampering with the telling for entertainment sake. All olfactory senses are on alert for a mixture of talcum, lavender, onions, wet wool and damp newspaper. Only later do we get urine and feces. Mary (Maggie Smith) barks that her unseen places are the cleanest of my mother’s children. He says her incontinence stain is ” not a fashion statement” and that she has left “a parcel on the path”. Scatalogical humor reigns.
Camden, England, 1973 on C High Street is our setting. Mary often reminds us and others that she is ” a sick woman, dying possibly”. The educated Mary ~ she speaks French and is musically gifted~ further states that she is “in need of dire assistance.” The street’s curious residents react with the full spectrum of recoil and disdain to grudging acceptance and generosity. “Staying long?” being one of my favorites.
Maggie Smith gutsy spirit is displayed as she asks for guidance from the Virgin Mary, sells pencils in doorways,and to those who ask of her chalk marks, ” I teach, the pavement is my blackboard”. She moves on only when a family of children practicing on their recorders cause her musical ears distress. Margaret Mary ( she is called both) ends up in in playwright Alan Bennett’s (Alex Jennings) drive. She uses his lav, his tv, and later his electricity. The social worker tells him, “You are the one she related to”.
Jennings has an alter ego which at first I thought was his brother. They dress differently and banter in conversation. I found this ineffective and confusing in showing his two minds. Stereotypically, there are mommy issues. His own mother wishes more attention and ends up in a nursing home with a broken hip and dementia. There is some guilt absolved by the lady in the van’s mere presence. As Mary tells us she is “disabled, I had rheumatic fever as a child” , “I need divine protection”: “off- street parking would be ideal.” Jennings uses his encounters with his “two minds” and with Mary Shepherd to shepherd his own thoughts and anxieties. He writes a monologue and performs it on stage. Episodic clashes with boa constrictors, peacocks and yellow paint with clumps of Madeira cake are shared. Mary becomes his muse, and she becomes his mother’s derelict counterpart residing in his garden.
I hated the “you make me feel so young” part of the score playing minutes before the screen lights up : old and eccentric genre made mean. We get glimpses of Margaret’s (Maggie Smith) backstory. She is in a crash, hits something that cracks and bloodies her windshield. With gloves and hat on she decides to ditch the police. We see her in her younger days on stage with full symphony. Her piano concerto glorious. We then see her in a nunnery admonished for practicing at the keyboard. The Catholic Church takes a beating in this film. Mary keeps confessing the same sin. The priest tells her that absolution is not like a bus pass running out, but no other intervention is arranged except for the air freshener kept behind the Blessed Mother statue.
Maggie Smith is what you will remember in this film. Her funniest line reminded me of a former high school teacher. As a series of young men come and go through Bennett’s home, Smith says ” I know who these men are: they are Communists”! She is humorously so very wrong and innocent. Yet, her “cantankerous argumentative vagabond nobility ” as she rises in the ambulance plays well with what else we should take from this film. We do not do well with our own aging relatives. We need a whole village to hold hands. As Maggie’s character says, “when donations come rolling in, they will realize what a catch I was.” I thought her Ascension into Heaven made light of her story and was a tad sacrilegious. See it for Maggie Smith, but a three star film it is.