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Can anyone resist Maggie Smith? Not bloody likely

Maggie Smith cannot be stopped. But then who on earth would want her to be?

At the age of 81, she is the star and drawing card of “The Lady in the Van,” which gives her the exact kind of flamboyant “old lady” role you hope actresses of her gifts can find at her age.

And she’s no fool. She knows it. She has already performed it on the stage and on BBC radio. The crowd-pleasing film opening this weekend was inevitable – especially after “Downton Abbey” made her the Dowager Countess of award shows and TV cults the world over.

This is an exquisite, machine-made British wit-and-sentiment showcase for one of the great performers of her time. She will amuse – greatly. She will move you – elegantly and ineluctably.

And I’ll happily confess that I’m as helpless before the anchor of “Downton Abbey” and “Harry Potter” as everyone else is. (My favorite Smith performance: “A Private Function,” the world’s funniest movie about the perils of pig droppings.) But, if no one minds my saying so, this movie comes close to setting records for disingenuousness. Which is to say, its claim to be a “mostly true story” should be taken with a 40-pound bag of salt.

Smith plays a homeless woman named Miss Shepherd who lives in a decrepit old van which she parks in various available spaces in London’s Camden borough.

There is some resident impatience with her squatting on the street, but the movie’s first bit of disingenuousness is to pass off this neighborhood as an ordinary upper-middle class enclave full of everyday humanism. Not quite. The widow of the great composer Ralph Vaughan Williams lives just down the street. And our narrator, screenwriter and second protagonist is Alan Bennett who, once upon a time, was one of those who changed comedy as one of the four members of the British troupe Beyond the Fringe (the others were Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore).

They changed everything in the early 1960s. In fact, as part of their American tour back then, they played a gut-busting engagement in Kleinhans Music Hall. Much of what we now think is funny was predicated on Beyond the Fringe – Monty Python, “Saturday Night Live.” “Fringe” and “The Goon Show” were primal.

So this is no ordinary street. And Bennett is no ordinary neighbor. This is a Boho neighborhood where almost every home expects a little eccentricity from every other home.

It is Bennett’s persona in British theater and literature to impersonate the writer as a blundering, fussy, scholarly eccentric who would really rather not have to put too much of a claim on your attention. (James Agate once said “The British instinctively admire a man who is mediocre and is modest about it.”) Bennett’s narration in this film freely admits in passing that his work is not only no match for Proust, it’s “not even (a match) for J.B. Priestley.”

So the story Bennett tells in this hit play starring, on film, one of the great living actresses is about what happens when, as a result of a few elementary kindnesses toward her, Miss Shepherd decides that Bennett’s driveway is where she ought to park her van and live. So she does. For 15 years. And there’s your movie – as the two people become one of the oddest of odd couples – compassionate landlord and nonpaying tenant.

It’s all very entertaining and moving as Bennett tells us the story by backing into it reluctantly at every turn. (That’s Bennett’s way as a writer. He backs into stories reluctantly because he’s a writer. It’s his job.)

More than a half-century ago, Edith Sitwell wrote in a book called “English Eccentrics” that British aristocrats were fond of having on their large estates “ornamental hermits.” They were a combination of good-luck charm and badge of compassion.

Miss Shepherd in Bennett’s driveway is absolutely in that tradition. Especially when you discover how moving her backstory is – that she was once a concert pianist but had trouble fighting her way through a strict religious education. A traumatic event permanently consigned her to the world’s sideline.

Please don’t think I’m being cynically contemptuous of the elementary compassion involved in Bennett’s allowing an unofficial homeless tenant – whose aromas he describes in clinical detail – in his driveway for 15 years. I’m not. But he was always Bennett of Beyond the Fringe and author of “The History Boys” living on a Boho street in Camden and no doubt subject to the encouragement of any public eccentricity his life could handle (such friends as Cook, Moore and Miller were bound to be entertained.)

But then he’s telling this story, not us. Nicholas Hytner of “The Madness of King George” is his director. Alex Jennings does very well playing his diffident, awkward self.

It’s funny. And moving. And dedicated to a world where human beings pay attention to one another – even those who have decisively opted out of the world’s attentions. Enjoying this movie makes you a certain kind of person – one that so many of us might want to be.

But are we ever being worked over by old pros here. It’s worth remembering that from its opening seconds.


The lady in the van

3 stars

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Richard Griffith, James Corden

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Running time: 104 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for brief intense imagery.

The Lowdown: A mysterious homeless woman spends 15 years living in a van parked in the driveway of British playwright Alan Bennett.

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