Clearly on the run in her Bedford van, a panicked Ms Shepherd's (Maggie Smith) temporary stop in Camden, on the road (and later on the very drive) of Alan Bennet's (Alex Jennings) residency transcribes into 15 years of love, hate, and strained relations. The match of the unassertive, modest writer, and the eclectic, self-serving homeless woman provides each with their own support system - even if she doesn't know itl While Ms Shepherd's extensive and multifaceted history provides Bennet with a rich base for his writing - even if he doesn't realise it.
Striking a well-balanced mix of drama and comedy, the Nicholas Hytner directed film is quintessentially British, with many faces synonomous with British television making minor cameos - including Russell Tovey, James Corden and Frances de la Tour. The film, however, belongs to Maggie Smith. Unsurprisingly, as a symbol of British cinema, she shines in the role that sees her deliver an assortment of emotions, from the sharp-tongued and bitter lady we initially meet, to the evolved and more benign soul towards the end. It's a witty and comic performance for the majority, but she's never afraid to pull on the heartstrings - bringing a raw, naturalistic and moving strand to the role in the softer moments that is poignant and a wonderful contrast to the fun of the film's first half. Alex Jennings' performance must be noted too, as the audience are able to gravitate towards him, in two different roles nonetheless- as the writer and as the experiencer.
Without question, it's an enjoyable watch, but throughout the film, you can't help but think it isn't quite suited to cinema. Both the actors and director do their best with the material, but it really is a little out of place on the big screen, plot-wise and in the direction it aims for. It feels like a film you would watch on television, during the weekend when the weather is poor and you're feeling under it. It would likely be more satisfying watching it of your own accord at home, probably on the BBC, instead of on the big screen where it sometimes feels out of place. Maybe that is to do with the supporting cast - the majority of whom are more recognised for their television work than film. Unfortunately, it does impact your enjoyment of what would otherwise be a delightful, more causal tale.
Smith and Jennings bounce off each other well, creating a dynamic that is believable and a sheer joy to watch, while the supporting cast do well in their limited roles, without taking away from the two leads. It's unfortunate that the film isn't convincing on the big screen, as I do feel it could do better down the road, with the possibility of becoming a undeniable British classic in its later existence.
Summary: The Lady In The Van's not-so-secret weapon is the scintillating performance that Maggie Smith brings - offering a complexity and abundance of emotions - to a film that is otherwise better-suited to a smaller screen.
Highlight: It has to be Maggie Smith. Even at the age of 80, she manages to bring so much life and enthusiasm to the role; an absolute joy to watch and undoubtedly the film's shining beacon.