If you savor any opportunity to watch Maggie Smith chew scenery on screen, you will love any moment in her latest movie, The Lady in the Van, now available for home viewing. If, however, you need more to justify watching a film than a chance to see this dynamic Dame act her head off, you may not find this little movie to be your cup of tea. But for those of us who love Maggie, or find ourselves still recovering from the end of Downton Abbey, any chance to watch Smith is a welcome opportunity.
The narrative of The Lady in the Van is slight as it could be. Maggie plays an elderly woman who – for a reason we only learn in the final moments – chooses to live “under the social radar” in a rundown van that she parks on the streets of an upscale London neighborhood. When the residents object, she asks a man who lives on the street if she can park her van in his driveway. He agrees. And she stays for years.
That’s about all that happens in the film. Maggie drives, arrives, talks and stays, and reminds us – with every moment – why she is considered one of the most engaging actresses of her generation. In lesser hands, this story could feel like an extended sketch without surprise to maintain momentum. But Smith makes us believe every nuance of every phrase this woman speaks, from how she pleads with her “landlord” to how she interacts with her “neighbors” to how she bargains with a well-intentioned social worker. While carefully protecting the character’s backstory until the final reveal, Smith artfully uses the lady’s mystery to add shadings to the performance. No matter what we don’t know about this woman, this marvelous actress lets us inside a most persistent, protective and practical person who can’t understand why her choices and requests would create any fuss.
The role feels tailor made for the great Dame Maggie who seems to relish the opportunity to play a part so different from her trademark role as the Dowager Countess at Downton Abbey. For fans who only know her from that scene-stealing performance, The Lady in the Van reminds us what a touching actress this two-time Oscar winner can be. She makes the film well worth the time.
But when Smith is off screen (which fortunately is not often) the movie loses its focus when it tries to add depth to the story. It does try to develop the character of the man who offers his driveway, a seemingly successful playwright who uses the relationship to help resolve his issues with his own mother as well as source material for a new show. But these sequences do not add much to the film – except running time – and tend to confuse with a series of odd conversations where the writer talks with himself. This device is not helped by Alex Jennings’ flat portrayal of the writer. Such a detour seems unnecessary in a film that, as long as Smith is center screen, works without the artificial.
Ultimately, this is Maggie’s show, and she offers more than enough reason to overlook the moments that drag for the sublime sequences she creates. See it for her.
“Film Nutritional Value”: The Lady in the Van
- Content: Medium. This look at a woman who lives in a van parked in a playwright’s driveway is thin on narrative but thick with charm.
- Entertainment: High. Thanks to a marvelous portrayal by Maggie Smith, the movie feels like it’s about more than it actually is.
- Message: Medium. While the movie tries to comment on several issues – from religion to aging to health care – it’s actually about watching a great actress.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to see one of the finest performers of her generation – in a rare movie lead – is worth the time.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your family, take a look at some of the other great performances from Dame Maggie.
(The Lady in the Van is rated PG-13 for “a brief unsettling image.” The film runs 104 minutes. It is available on DVD, On Demand and online streaming.)
For more about the movies of Maggie Smith, check Arts and Leisure online at hersam.com.