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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Rock On, Maggie

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday February 18, 06:50 pm
Smith is the only reason to watch The Lady In The Van

The Lady in the Van
Roxy
Coming Soon
3 out of 5

There is something to be said about Maggie Smith’s endurance. In 60 years in the business, she has never had downtime. While most actresses complain there are no roles for them after 40, Smith has commanded her own franchise (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and shaped two characters for the ages: Harry Potter’s professor Minerva McGonagall and Downton Abbey’s Countess of Grantham.

She doesn’t even show up at award shows. She’s already won all the prizes (including two Oscars).

Naysayers who believe Smith has only two modes as an actor — stern and prickly — will have a field day with The Lady in the Van. Based on the one-man show by acclaimed English playwright/actor Alan Bennett (The History Boys), the film covers the 15 years Miss Mary Shepherd (Smith) lived in a dilapidated van on Bennett’s driveway. Fearful of authorities because of a hit-and-run she was involved in, Shepard never pursued social assistance or made any effort to change her lifestyle.

Shepherd wasn’t necessarily a good person. An equal opportunity offender, she wasn’t given to common courtesy or basic human interactions. But there was something about her that kept an entire suburban neighborhood enabling her, including Bennett.

A dual character study, The Lady in the Van is just as concerned with Bennett as it is with Shepherd. Not a particularly philanthropic man, Bennett’s tolerance of the entitled vagrant has more to do with guilt regarding his mother and assorted insecurities. The film spins its wheels more often than not (Bennett’s efforts to figure out Shepherd’s origins are lackadaisical at best), and the comedy is too mild to register.

But on the bright side, Maggie Smith is so eminently watchable she makes the whole pointless exercise tolerable.

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