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Maggie Smith Drives 'Lady in the Van'

As a homeless woman with a secret, the 'Downton Abbey' star is touching and hilarious

The Lady in the Van

Nicola Dove/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Maggie Smith stars in 'The Lady in the Van.'

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 44 minutes

Stars: Jim Broadbent, James Corden, Claire Foy, Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith

Director: Nicholas Hytner

En español | As quirky as its characters, with an off-center sense of humor and a refusal to take itself too seriously, The Lady in the Van is a showcase for some of Britain's finest screen actors. The unsinkable Maggie Smith plays the homeless lady in question. 

Invited to park her van for a few weeks in the driveway of British playwright Alan Bennett (brought to life with endearing bemusement by Alex Jennings), she stayed for 14 years.

Channeling imperious matriarchs (Downton Abbey, the Harry Potter films, etc.) has certainly put Marmite on the table for Maggie Smith in her later career. But in recent years — in films such as My Old LadyQuartet and two installments of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — she has also created a gallery of crusty yet delicate characters who, for all their outward bombast, touch our hearts with their vulnerability.

Here she plays Miss Shepherd, whose sad, curious history reveals itself as the film unfolds. Hers is a poignant tale, but the real attraction is the interplay between Miss Shepherd and her befuddled host. As Bennett — the real-life, Oscar-nominated writer whose memoir inspired the film — Jennings plays a decent chap who is uncomfortable with people under any circumstances, much less with someone tramping through his house to use the bathroom night and day. Smith's Miss Shepherd — gloriously decrepit, endlessly rude, infuriatingly likable — professes to have no use for people at all, yet manages to alienate everyone in the neighborhood with her unremitting neediness.

Keep your eyes peeled for an array of master-class actors in minor roles. Jim Broadbent passes through as a lowlife who's blackmailing Miss Shepherd over a long-held secret; Late Late Show host James Corden nails his bit as a fishmonger; Wolf Hall's Anne Boleyn, Claire Foy, plays a social worker; and even Bennett himself turns up, in an ingeniously odd coda where he appears alongside Jennings.

Bennett, who wrote the excellent Madness of King George and Prick Up Your Ears, adapted the screenplay for The Lady in the Van from his 1999 autobiographical play of the same name (which likewise starred Maggie Smith). Here he resorts to a complex structure — a flashback within a flashback, both nestled inside yet a third remembrance — that initially threatens to lose the viewer. By the same token, his conceit of having Jennings address himself via split screen is a bit twee, and his repeated observation that people of faith are angry, abusive and hypocritical needed to be made only once for us to get the point.

On the plus side of the ledger, every scene between the two principals is splendid; their personalities fit together like pieces of scrap lumber whose jagged edges perfectly mesh.

Take this Lady for a spin.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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