It takes a special kind of actress to play a woman who has clearly soiled herself as regal and dignified. That actress is Maggie Smith, who, as a sick, old, cantankerous neighborhood vagabond named Miss Shepherd, rides an ambulance wheelchair lift like a queen on her motorized throne, her bright blue eyes shining down on her subjects below.
The lift scene is a poignant moment in the sharp British comedy "The Lady in the Van," a delicately written, boisterously performed movie about the difficult people who dare us to care about them.
The movie succeeds at creating a memorable odd couple who need each other more than they care to admit — Smith's mysteriously cultured bag lady and her timid playwright neighbor, Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings. Most urban neighborhoods have someone like Miss Shepherd, a character whom you see every day and wonder, what on earth is her story? In the case of Bennett — a writer in real life — it was a woman who "temporarily" parked her van in his London driveway in 1974 and stayed for 15 years.
In "The Lady in the Van," Smith reprises a role she played to great acclaim on stage in London and reunites with the play's director, Nicholas Hytner, on a script Bennett wrote from his memoir.
Jennings deftly carries off the movie's trickiest device, in which the playwright is depicted as two characters, one who lives out in the world and the other who stays home and writes. Their bickering — about Bennett's boring life, about his allowing Miss Shepherd to stay — provides some of the film's wittiest dialogue and solidifies Bennett as a character in many ways as neurotic and peculiar as his smelly guest.
As she hides in her van, collecting infinite plastic bags and saying prayers to repent for some unknown sin, he hides at his desk, grappling with his own guilt and secrets. "I'm a very busy woman!" she blurts out, comically, when she wants to be left alone. Busy doing what? She might as well be speaking for both of them.
A hilarious supporting cast shines as neighborhood gossips and do-gooders, especially Frances de la Tour as Bennett's empathetic ally and Roger Allam as an exasperated bystander. Visually the movie is mostly unremarkable, though its set — Bennett's real home in London's quaint Gloucester Crescent locale, lends a warmth and realism to the story.
The movie starts with a black screen and a thud, and Miss Shepherd has, apparently, been in some sort of accident, as her van's windshield glass is cracked and covered in blood. Just what happened isn't explained for 90 more minutes or so.
For audiences who know Smith for her patrician characters, such as Professor McGonagall in the "Harry Potter" series or the Dowager Countess of Grantham in "Downton Abbey," the movie is a welcome opportunity to see the actress play a character in far different circumstances. But that autocratic, even aristocratic sense of entitlement is as much a part of Miss Shepherd as any of Smith's marvelous creations.
The translation from stage to film doesn't completely work. An unnatural, stagy quality occasionally detracts from the production's many charms, particularly in a fanciful third-act sequence that plays off Miss Shepherd's devout Catholicism.
But that is more than made up for by Smith's layered creation of Miss Shepherd's seemingly contradictory qualities — she speaks fluent French, and often leaves excrement on the driveway — that sets up a mystery worth solving: Who was she before she was the lady in the van?
'The Lady in the Van'
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13, for a brief unsettling image
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West L.A.