Not long after Alan Bennett purchases his London home in 1970, he meets a cantankerous and unusual elderly woman named Ms. Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who lives in her beat-up van that she parks in his neighborhood. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Ms. Shepherd is living her life in hiding due to an event that occurred many years before. Some of the neighborhood's residents pity her and offer her the occasional gift of kindness, while others are bothered by her existence. Alan, himself, already has an older woman in his life, his mother, and she has become the focus of a lot of his writing as of late. The last thing he needs is Mary Shepherd complicating things for him, but here she is. As he watches Ms. Shepherd struggle in life from the bay window of his writing desk, Bennett also has his own internal struggle with his two sides - the man who lives his life and the man who only writes about it.
What starts out as a temporary measure to help Ms. Shepherd avoid parking fines turns into a 15 year relationship wherein she occupies his driveway with her van, bullying him most of the time, and accruing filth on his property. As he begins to learn bits and pieces about her past, he realizes she is not some crazy old woman, but is actually a highly educated, intelligent and talented woman who just happens to live in a van in his driveway. Shepherd lives her life as she sees fit and it doesn't always fit into the mold that others see for her, but she doesn't care. Together, the unlikely pair learn about life, friendship, and what truly matters.
First off, The Lady in the Van is a dramedy, I suppose. There are dozens of funny moments in the film, but it is also a very moving dramatic piece, as well. Watching the tentative relationship of this ill-fitting duo develop is quite interesting and both Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith are magical in their roles. The supporting cast of neighbors and local characters are splendid as well, and watching everyone age 15 years as the story progresses makes the viewer realize the length and depth of this very special relationship. While I am typically not a big proponent of special features, I really enjoyed the ones included on The Lady in the Van. There is so much background information provided on Alan Bennett, Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith and director Nicholas Hytner, all of whom have worked together quite a bit before, most interestingly on The Lady in the Van, which was previously a play (and a book, of course). There's also a featurette on the special effects, and while this type of movie typically wouldn't call for a lot of visual effects, having two Alan Bennett's (the writer/observer and the life-liver) a lot of the time was quite daunting.
Maggie Smith is truly one of the great actresses of this time; she is a joy to watch in any part and her dry wit and comedic timing are flawless as usual. This film is utterly delightful, touching, and sweet and is well worth the time to watch it.