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The Lady in the Van – Dame Maggie Gets Grimy

Don’t sweetheart me!  I’m a sick woman-possibly dying!

Dame Maggie Smith has had one of the most prolific and accomplished careers for any living actress-all the more remarkable since like a fine wine she appears to be only getting better with age; from Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise, to bigoted retired maid Muriel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith continues to soar and now she reaches another pinnacle with the part of the transient Miss Shephard in The Lady in the Van.

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In the 70s, renowned playwright Alan Bennet formed an awkward friendship with a homeless woman he knew as Miss Shephard and let her park her van outside his home. Originally, a three month arrangement, it lasted for fifteen years. Bennet (played in the film by Alex Jennings in delicate layers of English repression) is not sure what brings him to befriend this elderly woman. He doesn’t consider himself a ‘carer’ and he’s repelled by Miss Shephard’s poor hygiene and prickly personality. Miss Shephard reminds him of his own increasingly demented mother, and feelings of sympathy, and maybe just the desire for a good story, prompt him to offer her his driveway and occasional use of his lavatory.

In the meantime, Bennet also has to cope with being a closeted gay man and the notorious trap of writers; he tends to narrate his own life to himself, which on screen translates to him regularly breaking the fourth wall. (And in the movie’s final scene, we see the actual Alan Bennett on screen at the same time as Jennings playing him – which is about as meta as it gets.)

BennetBut while Bennet is an intriguing storyteller it’s his subject Miss Shephard that gives the movie its heart and soul. That and the secrets and tragedies of her tumultuous yet fascinating life history that is slowly revealed piece by piece. Maggie Smith dives into the role – indeed she’s  practically a cannonball.  She invests scenes of Miss Shephard playing at a merry go round or going off on someone with incredible vitality and gusto.  Her quieter moments resonate deeply –   her reaction to getting her first hot bath in years or having an unexpected moment with a piano, the beloved instrument of her youth which she was forced to give up upon taking holy orders. In these scenes, she conveys an emotional gamut greater than many performers can convey in an entire film of dialogue, silently in but a few moments, achieving a moment of transcendent perfection.  Dame Maggie is truly one of a kind.

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The Lady in the Van – Dame Maggie Gets Grimy


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