Monday, December 28, 2015

Tour de Force: Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van.

2015 has been an abundant movie year for leading performances by women, but to my mind Maggie Smith walks away with the honors for her work in The Lady in the Van. Smith created the role of Mary Shepherd, an irascible eccentric who spends the last decade and a half of her life living in her van in the driveway of a house owned by the English playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings). Bennett first encountered Miss Shepherd in 1970, shortly after he’d bought a house in trendy, gentrified Camden Town (the movie was shot in and around that actual house), but for a long time he resisted writing about their strange acquaintanceship while she was camped in his garden – an arrangement that he’d allowed reluctantly in 1974 as a temporary stop-gap but that became permanent without his ever actually agreeing to it. He eventually dramatized the story in 1999 and Smith starred in it at the National Theatre. I read about it at the time and eagerly anticipated seeing it when she brought it to Broadway, but she never did, so it’s a lovely surprise to see a movie version all these years later, with the same director, Nicholas Hytner. Hytner also staged Bennett’s The History Boys for the National in 2004 as well as the 2006 movie version, and except for Richard Griffiths, who died in 2013, the entire cast of that play shows up in The Lady in the Van. All but Frances De La Tour play cameo roles; she has a delightful supporting part as one of Alan’s neighbors, the widow of the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, a robust specimen of the English bohemian artists’ community of an earlier era. (My favorite of the cameos is by James Corden, as a street market vendor.)

Smith makes it clear why Bennett couldn’t say no to Miss Shepherd, who first settles on the street outside his house after depositing her vehicle outside a number of his dismayed neighbors’ residences. She refuses to think of herself as indigent; though she wears a worn overcoat and a woolen cap and deposits her garbage, even her feces, in Alan’s yard, where he has to deal with it, and though her smell is penetrating (and, his voice-over tells us, multi-layered), she treats everyone with whom she comes in contact with a mixture of lordly pride and unanswerable lunatic logic. She insists, for example, that she arrived at her current domestic situation, in this neighborhood, on this street, with guidance from the Virgin Mary. Alan refers to her “vagabond nobility,” and Smith digs into her amazing stock of mannerisms to convey aristocratic hauteur. When a well-intentioned local offers her homemade crème brulée, she pulls it inside the van with an air of vague annoyance and slams the door. When a social worker (Claire Foy), responding to her request to social services of a new coat, arrives with three, assuming she’ll be knocked out by the generosity of the gesture, she protests indignantly that there’s no room in her van for the excess and drops one unceremoniously on the ground because “green’s not my color,” offering this as not just a statement of indisputable fact but as such an obvious one that to offer her a green garment is clearly a folly and an imposition. When Alan invites her, against his better judgment, to park her van in his driveway, he reports in voice-over, “I was about to do her a good turn, but not without thoughts of strangulation. She would come into the garden, yes, but only as a favor to me.” She’s immune to criticism, answering Alan’s instinctive reaction to the smell of her van with the claim that she once received a testimonial to the cleanliness of her quarters (in childhood?). Bulling her way into his home, over his objections, to use his bathroom when she’s caught short, she strolls out again without bothering to acknowledge the favor she’s forced out of him; he reminds her that a thank-you might be appropriate, but she ignores him. Another time she accuses him of stealing her key; he points out that she’s wearing it around her neck but she refuses to apologize, explaining brusquely that “sorry” is only for God. The comedy that derives from the tension between Miss Shepherd’s circumstances and her monarchic attitude has a legacy of staunch, unassailable British women like several of the characters Margaret Rutherford used to play; you get a sense of it in reverse in The Queen when Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth drives her car into a pond and, unable to get it out again, murmurs, “Bugger!” because she has to call the palace for assistance. The queen trained as a driver and a mechanic in the war, and every working woman has the right to hold herself like a queen in her own home; it’s the paradox of the iron-clad English class system.
You can see how impossible it is for Alan to hold out against this woman, who also echoes the quieter persistence of his own widowed mother (Gwen Taylor). “Mam” – whom West End theatregoers met in 2013 in Untold Stories, a stage version of two of Bennett’s reminiscences, “Hymn” and “Cocktail Sticks” – has a rural modesty that is as distinctly English as Miss Shepherd’s indomitability, but she doesn’t hesitate to remind Alan, “I’m on my own,” when she feels it’s been too long since his last visit. Alan feels that his life is overrun with old women; when Mam moves to a retirement home, he feels that somehow this development represents a failure on his part, and that, at the other end of the spectrum, his inability to get rid of Miss Shepherd represents another failure. But in fact, though Miss Shepherd is exasperating – and the second social worker (Cecilia Noble), who treats him, with the sternness of a headmistress lecturing an errant child, as if he and not Miss Shepherd were the real problem, is infuriating – Alan is fascinated and touched by his unofficial tenant’s dotty resilience. He refuses to write about her – about either of these looming senior women; he insists that he prefers to write about spies. (Bennett fans know that he did so, with tremendous success: his two one-acts about the Cambridge spies, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, lifted him into the front rank of English dramatists when they were televised in brilliant productions by John Schlesinger, the first starring Alan Bates as Guy Burgess, the second starring James Fox as Sir Anthony Blount.) Yet he tries to find out more about her as if he were researching her, following up on her tossed-off references to driving an ambulance during the war (you think inevitably of Queen Elizabeth!) and spending time in a convent, on a nocturnal visit she receives from a mysterious man (Jim Broadbent) who demands money from her, and on her bizarre, hysterical aversion to classical music.

Jennings (as Alan Bennett) with Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van.

Smith makes Miss Shepherd’s dementia richly entertaining; her line readings are, as always, nonpareil. But this performance isn’t just a display of the actress’s technique, which may be the greatest of any living actress, and much as I love watching her as Lady Crawley on Downton Abbey, this role takes her much deeper. Miss Shepherd has a complicated relationship with religion. Alan hears her praying ferociously; when she goes to confession, we see her terrified eyes through the holes in the booth as the priest (Dermot Crowley) reminds her that he’s given her absolution over and over again for the same sin. “Absolution is not like a bus pass,” he explains to her. “It does not run out.” We can see she doesn’t believe him. We don’t find out until near the end of the movie what she’s seeking forgiveness for (though the opening sequence lays it out), but we do learn well before that point that she was indeed a novice, and also a gifted pianist, a talent that the nuns forbade her to indulge because her facility with music (it “came easier than praying”) was seen as “another vent the devil could creep through.” The baggage that classical music comes with for her explains her overwrought response to it when she hears it wafting out of Alan’s house or the houses of his neighbors. But one time, when she stops by the church to pick up some free food, she hears a female pianist and is able to listen calmly, meditatively, drawn into a part of her past that doesn’t unsettle her. And late in the picture, when she’s finally persuaded to spend some time under medical observation in a day center, she sits down at a piano and plays. This is a fantastic moment: we see her tentativeness before she touches the keys, her unsureness that she can pull off what she’s trying to do, then her uncertainty about how to respond to her success at it, and finally a look of mixed wonder and anguish that’s different from anything we’ve seen from her before. Smith has other indelible moments, too: twisting her head around like a giraffe after she’s been bathed and her hair brushed at the day center before she checks her reflection in the mirror; peeking out through the window of her van, her gray hair loose about her shoulders, so startlingly uncovered for once that she looks shockingly vulnerable, the worry accumulating in the rings around her eyes. Smith was about to turn eighty when she filmed this performance, and I think it’s one of her most remarkable achievements.

Jennings, who’s best known on these shores for playing Prince Charles in The Queen, is expert at getting Alan Bennett’s balance of wit and self-deprecation, and at replicating his thin, Yorkshire-accented voice; he also played him in Untold Stories. The two performances are like two episodes in a miniseries. For The Lady in the Van, Bennett has added a self-reflexive layer to the character, dividing his dramatic self in two, the one who “lives” and the one who writes, and they banter with each other. This is the one element in the script that feels tacked-on and a little self-conscious, though it serves the purpose of commenting on Alan’s loneliness: one Alan observes wryly to the other that as it happens, neither of them is doing much in the way of living. The character’s homosexuality is treated comically for the most part: he brings the occasional pick-up home for a one-night stand, causing Miss Shepherd to opine that these nocturnal visitors must be Communists, “else why would they come at night?” (Her characterization of Alan as a Communist is a running gag in the movie.) When his neighbors, Rufus (Roger Allam) and Pauline (Deborah Findlay), attend one of his plays in the West End, which he’s also appearing in, she confides in her husband that she finds it baffling while he explains that, as usual, it’s all about Alan’s “not coming clean,” that is, about being gay. (The play is presumably A Chip in the Sugar, one of the set of monologues that the BBC televised under the title Talking Heads; Smith performed one of them, A Bed Among the Lentils – another of her marvels.) But Bennett finds a way to make the alter ego idea work for him in the end: when Alan starts “living” – when he acquires a live-in boy friend – he banishes the second Alan for good.

As a piece of writing, The Lady in the Van isn’t up to The History Boys, but that’s an unfair comparison, since I think The History Boys is the best play since the millennium. The Lady in the Van is a charmer, and it showcases a performance that no one who loves Maggie Smith can afford to miss.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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