Lawrence Toppman

‘Lady in the Van’ drives us to a new destination

Sony Pictures Classic

Margaret Shepherd is filthy, cantankerous, deceitful, ungrateful, selfish and rude. In an American movie, she’d be a source of laughter – say, Dirty Grandma to Robert De Niro’s Dirty Grandpa – or redeemed by the kindness of others into a peaceful and heart-gladdening old age.

In a British movie, especially when played by Maggie Smith in her Golden Globe-nominated performance, she remains recalcitrant and dislikable until the end. That’s why there’s real bite to “The Lady in the Van,” an adaptation by writer Alan Bennett of his 15-year encounter with a homeless woman in London’s fashionable Camden Town district.

The film reunites the team of Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner, who also did “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys.” This time, Bennett’s also a character – or, rather, two characters: Bennett Who Writes, a wry man who never leaves his desk, and Bennett Who Lives, a prim fellow with a shorter temper. (Alex Jennings plays both expertly, copying Bennett’s thick Yorkshire accent.)

As Margaret moves her dilapidated van around Camden Town, parking in front of expensive homes owned mostly by the nouveau riche, Bennett hypothesizes that she’s tolerated because the residents have guilty consciences, and allowing a homeless person to dwell nearby alleviates that guilt.

But when she asks to park permanently in his driveway – she can’t get financial help without a permanent address – Bennett agrees, to his own surprise and consternation. Perhaps, he says, he can make writing capital out of her eccentric character. Maybe he was too timid to fight her off.

Either way, he tries to sift through her physical and mental debris. She says she was a classical pianist good enough to play at London’s famed Promenade Concerts. She was, she claims, a nun (twice). She won’t explain why a seedy character (Jim Broadbent) shuffles around every so often to extort hush money for an unacknowledged offense.

Bennett’s own mother (Gwen Taylor) has begun to slip into senility, and he contrasts his relationship to her with his assistance to the ever more bristly woman in the van. We realize this narrative is a double story of discovery: Bennett discovers his true self, and we discover Margaret.

Or do we? Bennett admits, in one of many monologues to the camera, that he has invented dialogue and filled in missing details. That makes the title character elusive, and when we do find out something concrete about her – such as the reason she’s now homeless – it may not be credible.

The Golden Globes defined “Van” as a comedy. That’s not wholly accurate, even if George Fenton’s galumphing music usually prods us to laugh. Nor is it a mystery with a definite solution. But if you want a glimpse of a damaged mind and a thorough look at an artist’s healthier psyche, you’ll be satisfied.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Lady in the Van

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent.

Director: Nicholas Hytner.

Length: 105 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (a brief unsettling image).