The Lady In The Van
So what can I say about the brilliant and sublime Maggie Smith that hasn’t already been said? She’s a bloomin’ National Treasure for goodness sake. She’s known, most recently, of course for her turn as the Dowager Duchess Countess Grantham in Downton Abbey (aka Mrs I don’t give a monkey’s uncle about all this new fangled modern nonsense and blame it all on the Americans). TBH her barbed jibes were the only bright moments in a thoroughly unadventurously dark and silly soap opera. Her caustic tongue and withering looks kept everyone in there place and viewers on the other side of The Pond begging for more.
But if they Googled a little – there’s so much more…
You can keep all yer Harry Potter episodes and the decades of notable West End and Broadway performances – yes, yes all brilliant and there’s Oscars and a Tony award in there too of course but, to me, Maggie Smith will always be Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. My teenage school-friends and I walked the grounds of our all girls school chanting “Give me a gurrul at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life”
We so wanted to be the crème de la crème.
And despite being surrounded by spinster school mistresses, we seemed oblivious to the many incarnations of Miss Brodie in our midst. Each of our well coiffed, tweedy, Edwardian-era teachers spent a lifetime passing on to us on her pearls of literary and historical wisdom.
Youth wasted on the young.
Would, or could, Jean Brodie have aged into the nervous little hunched-over homeless lady forever looking over her shoulder for the policeman who might one day clap her in irons and take her away?
“Where?” Asks Alan. “To the place where they take you to.” She replies.
Watching Maggie Smith’s performance in The Lady In The Van, you can almost see the dots joined had Miss Brodie carried her dark secrets into a battered old Bedford van and cocooned herself there for the rest of her life.
So Alan Bennett let a homeless lady park her van on his driveway . She stayed long enough to get a Blue Plaque. The double incarnation of Camden resident (Bennett played by Alex Jennings) and award-winning playwright (Bennett played by Alex Jennings) who observe, write about and tolerate a smelly old lady living in his garden for 15 years – while his own mum deteriorates in the ‘Oop North’ he so long ago left behind – is something only the English would do. Cinematically speaking, it’s the quirky part of well educated, liberal Brits, along with sumptuous costume dramas, that is a big part of our stock in trade.
After a touching ending, the script gets a little silly. Accessions to heaven and meeting the dead – Nah. But all in all the English eccentric-ness is played out to a fine tune alongside a wobbly slice of the North London gentrification that was going on in the 70s and 80s. The Knockers-Through, as Bennett dubbed them, trying to be openminded while guessing how much their houses are worth now.
Lasting images from the film are Miss Shepherd’s expression of sheer horror at the site of a bath full of hot water and her look of utter joy as Bennett perambulates her along Gloucester Crescent in a wheelchair. It seems that for Dame Maggie, there was as we say – N.A.R. – No Acting Required.
Bennett’s sharp and witty script is one thing, Dame Maggie’s perfect timing in a lady of such advanced years is stupendous and testament to years spent on stage working with actors of a similar calibre. No moment is left unplayed with the delicate touch of a mistress still at the top of her game.
Still in her Prime.
FOUR STARS – For Two-For-The-Price-of-One Alan Bennetts and one hellava Dame.