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NPR Arts & Life

Maggie Smith Is Deft, Daft And Driven In 'The Lady In The Van'

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Looking for evidence that truth is stranger than fiction? Alan Bennett has a story for you: The Lady in the Van, about a writer named Alan Bennett who let a homeless woman move her van into his London driveway for "a couple of weeks," only to have her stay for 15 years.

This was, by his own account, awkward while it was happening, but from that awkwardness has come a best-selling book, and a splendid part for Maggie Smith on the radio, in a hit London play and now in a movie.

Bennett first became aware of Miss Shepard, an elderly habitue of a neighborhood he'd just moved into, when she approached him in front of a church asking if he was "St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved."

Assured that he's not the least bit saintly, she then asked for a push. Her van wouldn't start, possibly because of the battery, she said, though she'd recently added water.

"Distilled water," he wondered.

"It was holy water," she replies. "So it doesn't matter if it's distilled or not."

Maggie Smith finds every laugh and every tear in <em>The Lady in the Van. </em>
Nicola Dove / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Maggie Smith finds every laugh and every tear in <em>The Lady in the Van. </em>

He gave her the push, only to have her settle on his block, becoming a fixture at the curb for several months. She did not precisely endear herself to his neighbors, grousing when they brought her food and clothing, complaining about the quality of the gifts the neighborhood children gave her at Christmastime. She annoyed almost everyone ... but Bennett, being a playwright, ever on the lookout for a good character, thought her eccentricities intriguing, and her position on the curb possibly dangerous, so he made a modest proposal: She could park in his driveway until she got settled.

"It might not be convenient ... for me," she replied.

"I was about to do her a good turn," he says, turning to the camera, "but as ever, it was not without thoughts of strangulation."

That little audience aside is a pretty representative sample of the mild-mannered wit that's served Bennett well since his days with the comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His persona is ever erudite, ever timid, and Miss Shepard has proved an excellent foil, both in real life and in the art he's made of their relationship.

There is more to this story than jokes. Bennett and his director, Nicholas Hytner, excelled in bringing out undercurrents of frailty and loneliness in forceful personalities in The Madness of King George and The History Boys. And they do it again here.

Maggie Smith, who's re-creating her stage performance as the peppery Miss Shepard, has figured out where every laugh is in this material. Also every tear. She gives us a woman who's deft and daft, driven by a private guilt that Bennett spends most of the film trying to get to the bottom of.

The author, played by Alex Jennings, is pictured as a man of many minds on most issues, and the screenplay occasionally goes meta with his writer-and-subject obsession, splitting him in two so that he can debate all sides with his guest in the driveway.

"Will you write about me," she wonders, assessing correctly that he's observing her as a character. "You use your mother ... me next, I suppose."

Happily for audiences, it turns out The Lady in the Van got that right.

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