Dame Maggie Smith has had a tremendous career. But more often than not, her skills are applied to characters who’re either figures of authority or are some form of gentry. Since her first onscreen role (and first wealthy role), in Nowhere to Go, she’s mastered the nuance and occasional hilarity of British upper-crust stuffiness. (Her performance in Gosford Park sees her at the height of these powers.) But the trailer for her next film, Lady in the Van (not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s film about a “narf” in a swimming pool, Lady in the Water), shows her reveling in the opportunity to play against type — as a woman who lives in a van and has a total disregard for properness.
Smith’s performance in the trailer (which you can watch below) alone is worth talking about, and her portrayal of the titular lady has already earned the film a lot of praise. As /Film points out, after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, it currently holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes — and it seems critics are mostly talking about how Smith is the film’s “driving force.” In it, she plays Miss Mary Shepherd, who’s usurped the driveway of a successful writer (played by Alex Jennings) with her van.
The film (which will see limited release on December 11) is based on the loose memoir/play by Alan Bennett, who also wrote The History Boys. It’s likewise directed by The History Boys’ Nicholas Hytner, making this his third time at the helm of a Bennett adaptation. The premise is a little more unconventional than it may initially seem, as the main character — who is Alan Bennett, is actually split into two Alan Bennetts. “The writer is double,” the real-life Alan Bennett explained in the TIFF synopsis. “There is the self who does the writing and there is the self who does things.” At first, the Bennett character(s) is (are?) annoyed by her — her stubbornness, her invasion of his property, her discussions with the Virgin Mary. But, as the TIFF description continues:
Perhaps he’s also a little curious. Where did she find this van? Where did she learn French? And who is that strange man (Jim Broadbent) who keeps coming round in the middle of the night? Miss Shepherd seems to have led a life so much more interesting than Alan’s. Perhaps some of that interest will rub off on him. There will certainly be plenty of time for that to happen as she tests the limits of his hospitality, stretching the three months into fifteen years.
Watch the trailer: