American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Before watching “The Lady in the Van,” be forewarned that you're about to be subjected both verbally and, more regretfully, visually to the none-too-tidy lavatory habits of an elderly British vagrant who resides in her vehicle and rarely has an actual bathroom at her disposal.
The upside is that said lady is brought to life by the magnificent Maggie Smith, who has previously inhabited this hygiene-impaired creature described as “an odoriferous concerto” and primarily known as Miss Shepherd to acclaim both on stage and radio. Thankfully, there is more than a dash of Dowager Countess imperiousness lurking in this churlish ancient street urchin wrapped in dank glad rags whose face sticks out from under sundry second-hand caps and scarves like a shriveled apple doll version of E.T. She fully expects, nay, demands to be catered to by strangers, and can’t be bothered with such niceties as “please” and “thank you.” Her reaction when a resident of the nouveau-riche North London enclave—where she has staked her claim—stops by to bestow Christmas gifts upon her? “Shut the door,” she bellows while reclining among the scattered detritus of her four-wheeled abode. “I’m a busy woman."
At the very least, you do have to admire both her unmitigated gall and survival instincts. Miss Shepherd, whose antics are mostly based on fact, has mastered the art of preying upon the liberal guilt in the artist-laden borough of Camden. The only one who dares call her out on her "woe-is-me" manipulations is a market vendor (James Corden in a cameo). “Chin up love – we’ve all got to go sometime.” He then adds rather snidely as she passes by, “Smells like you already have.”
But no one falls under her sway more than Alan Bennett, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of 1995’s “The Madness of King George.” He once again collaborates with director Nicholas Hytner (they also did 2006’s “The History Boys”) while adapting his own play about how this titular interloper ended up residing in his driveway for 15 years in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He also is the source of not one but two characters—Bennett the scribe and Bennett the man, one handling the writing details, the other his life—who sarcastically goad one another like an old married couple.