'The Lady in the Van' (PG-13)

On its surface, The Lady in the Van sounds like heartwarming, feel-good claptrap: An elderly homeless woman takes up residence in a van parked in the driveway of a British writer’s home. But Nicholas Hynter’s film is based on Alan Bennett’s anything-but-sentimental memoir about his peculiar friendship with Mary Shepard, who lived on his street and whom he allowed into his driveway temporarily in the 1970s. She stayed there for 15 years.

A playwright, novelist and performer, Bennett is probably best known in this country for his plays and screenplays for The History Boys and The Madness of King George. But he’s also the author of such witty, winning novels as The Uncommon Reader and The Clothes They Stood Up In, and he got his start performing with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Humor is his weapon of choice, and it’s on full display in this smart screenplay, which he adapted.

One of the many clever strokes in the film is how Bennett views himself as two distinct people (both played with dry resolve by Alex Jennings of The Queen and Babel): One is Alan the neighbor, the ambitious boy from Leeds, the son of an ailing mother, the man who seems oddly disconnected from other people. The other is Alan the writer, who watches the goings-on in Real Alan’s life with detached curiosity and cool calculation. This conceit grows more meta as the film winds on, as Real Alan finds himself drawn into the plight of the homeless Mary, a well-known figure on his street — and Writer Alan considers what exactly he can make of her story, taking liberties with the truth. “She didn’t say this!” Real Alan objects, outraged. But Writer Alan knows what works.

The great Maggie Smith plays Mary, who is financially a far cry from Smith’s Downton Abbey dowager but equally haughty (Smith has played the role in theatrical and radio versions of this story). Mary drives her dilapidated van around Camden Town, always moving to avoid the authorities (and any trace of music, to which she can’t bear to listen). She is not a particularly nice woman. She snubs kind neighbors who offer her food or compassion (“They repeat on me,” she tells a friendly mom, disdaining an offering of fresh pears). Clearly Mary is disturbed — she’s sure the men she sees leaving Alan’s home late at night are Communists — but she isn’t dangerous, and even the most reluctant neighbors inevitably accept her. “Their consciences are absolved by her presence,” Alan notes pointedly.

But there’s more to Mary, Alan learns over the years: She wasn’t always a ragged, unnerving bag lady. She didn’t always hate music. But even as time passes and Alan begins to learn the truth about her past, The Lady in the Van doesn’t give in to platitudes. It’s unnervingly honest about its subject. When Mary grows incontinent, for example, Alan finds himself forced to deal with ugly scatological truths: People may think otherwise, but “caring,” he thinks darkly, “is about sh–.” It’s also about honoring one simple life, any way you can.

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent.

Director: Nicholas Hynter.

Screenwriter: Alan Bennett. Based on his memoir.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 104 minutes. A brief, unsettling image. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset, Aventura; in Broward: Gateway, Paradise; in Palm Beach: Palace, Living Room, Shadowood.

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