2015 has proven to be a significant year for movies with characters that find themselves homeless. With more than three movies released this year including director Paul Bettany’s Shelter with Jennifer Connelly as a heroine addict who struggles through the shelter system; Richard Gere as a homeless man in Time Out of Mind (currently streaming on Netflix), and The Lady in the Van featuring Dame Maggie Smith as an elderly homeless woman who lives inside a van parked in a London residential neighbourhood, the subject of homelessness is a topic on many people’s minds.
As a theme, homelessness, is not a new to film; it has been present in such films as The Fisher King (1991), Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and earlier films such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Not only suitable for dramas with a cry for awareness, but homelessness can be the subject for comedies as is the case of director Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, 2004) adaptation of playwright Alan Bennett’s true life experience with a transient and eccentric old woman who, in the 1970s, lived in her Van, parked in Bennett’s driveway—for fifteen years.
Dame Maggie Smith trades in her Dowager Countess of Grantham jewels for a urine-soaked trench coat wearing Mary Shepherd the lady in the van. It’s refreshing to see Dame Maggie playing a character that is different from the same pinched lipped, stuffy, British lady she’s been playing since A Room with A View. She creates a role that is refreshingly multidimensional. It’s delightful to see Smith appear as a leading character for a change as she is so often cast in a supporting role or part of an ensemble piece such as The Exotic Marigold Hotel, or TV’s Downton Abby, and—of course, lest we forget Harry Potter (Minerva McGonagall). This time she brings to the screen a performance that is funny, often unsympathetic, but also a bit disturbing. You can’t help but think what would I do if I were in Bennett’s position?
The Lady in the Van was originally produced in 1999 as a play in London’s West End, directed by Hytner with Maggie Smith as Mary Shepherd, and the film retains a strong sense of its theatrical origins. Exhibited mostly through the Alan Benett character, played effectively by Alex Jennings, as he plays two parts of himself the writer and the other the real self. Both characters talk and bicker with each other. It is only the “real” Bennett that interacts with Mary, his mother, and the characters outside of his home. While I often welcome a sense of theater in my movies, in this case it sometimes comes off a bit clunky, self aware and distracting. I can only imagine that duel Bennett characters in the stage version were more suited and ultimate powerful on stage than on screen. The film is entertaining and a must-see delight for any Anglophile looking for a witty British comedy, but most importantly this is a must see for the millions of Dame Maggie Smith fans out there eager to see her have more screen time. Expect less Violet Dowager Countess of Grantham’s campy rapier bite (there’s some) and more depth and emotion with Miss Smith’s Lady in the Van.
—John David West