Playwright Alan Bennett's bizarre living arrangement with a lady of indeterminate age who occupied a broken down van in his London driveway was first published as his memoirs in 1989. Ten years later it became a stage play starring Dame Maggie Smith. Now, Ms. Smith has reprised that same role as Miss Sheperd in director Nicholas Hytner's brilliant film adaptation "The Lady in the Van".
The indomitable Miss Sheperd (Smith) was already a resident of Gloucester Crescent Street in Camden, parking her van in front of various homes, when Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) first purchased his home there in the late 1960's. His was one of the few houses graced with a front garden and driveway. After several other homeowners, and then the Camden Council, enforced a move upon Miss Sheperd, she took up residence in Bennett's unused driveway for a "few months" which turned into 15 years.
To state that Ms. Smith's performance is a tour-de-force would be an understatement. She is magnificent! It is sheer joy to watch her play this cantankerous old woman, though at first it's unsettling. We are so used to viewing her as Violet Crawley. Dowager Duchess of Grantham on "Downton Abbey", dressed in exquisite costumes and jewels, that when first glimpsed as Miss Sheperd in the van, she's hardly recognizable.
But Ms. Smith does not let a little dirt on her clothes or matted greasy hair get in her way. She is a force to be reckoned with, a solitary being with a few undisclosed secrets. It's difficult to imagine anyone actually living this way for that length of time, but Ms. Smith does a masterful job of dignifying Miss Sheperd's character with just the right amount of independence.
Hytner and Bennett have collaborated on other projects, most notably "The History Boys" and "The Madness of King George", and were eager to work together again. "The Lady in the Van" was a perfect vehicle, only if Ms. Smith agreed. It's a wonderful film, and the pairing of Smith and Jennings is perfect.
Frances De La Tour has a small role as Mrs. Vaughn Williams, another Gloucester Crescent resident. But whenever De La Tour is present it is a treat. Her resume is so impressive and extensive --- she possesses one of those unforgettable faces. And her skills at comedy are formidable as evidenced by her recurring role as Violet on "Vicious", the PBS hit starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi.
I was truly shocked and very disappointed when the Oscar nominations were recently announced and Ms. Smith's name was not among the nominees for Best Actress. Hers is an Oscar-worthy performance, which is more than I can say for some of the other actresses whose names appear on the list.
Opinion: See It Now!