If crotchety upper-class vagrant Mary Shepherd hadn’t turned up on the North London doorstep of the celebrated playwright Alan Bennett, he might have had to make her up — if only to give Maggie Smith, our veritable Garbo of dingbat hauteur, one of the most tailor-made leading roles of her late career. Then again, perhaps Shepherd was partly his idea: The tension between life experience and authorial invention is the one complicating factor in “The Lady in the Van,” an otherwise heart-coddling, crowdpleasing study of two eccentric introverts — on opposite sides of the poverty line — finding common ground in more ways than one. Low on narrative drive, and marred by a misjudged final-act swerve into extravagant whimsy, Nicholas Hytner’s amiable luvvie-fest is enlivened by Smith’s signature irascibility; silver-dollar auds should turn up, if not in droves, at least in healthy vanloads.
“When I write about this, people will say it’s too much about s–t,” muses Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), as he wearily clears the feces left in his driveway — repeatedly, and without so much as a whisper of apology — by Smith’s homeless harridan. That’s an accusation few are likely to level at Hytner’s bright, polite film, the erstwhile National Theatre director’s third big-screen transfer of a Bennett play, following 1994’s “The Madness of King George” and 2005’s “The History Boys.” It’s plainly the slightest of the three, but has few pretensions to the contrary. An introductory title card declares the pic “a mostly true story,” breezily begging our pardon for its playfulness. Bennett’s play, based in turn on a memoir published in 1989, openly questioned its own substance and validity in the text; it was less personal for the past stories it recalled than for the present-tense artistic insecurity it admitted in telling them.
Such an intimate metatextual conceit is easier to sustain on stage than it is onscreen. Hytner and Bennett (once more adapting his own work) employ a tricksy device here, physically depicting the playwright as two identical beings in constant, argumentative conversation with each other. One repeatedly questions and counters the other’s narration as it unfolds, immediately alerting auds to potential exaggeration and confabulation in its remembrance of Shepherd, an eccentric nomad of indeterminate old age who mysteriously descended on Bennett’s leafy, upscale Camden Town crescent in 1973 and proceeded to live there, in a series of clapped-out leisure vehicles, for the better part of 15 years. It’s a somewhat fussy solution that nonetheless spares the film several reams of disembodied voiceover, and gives Jennings — whose effectively mannered Bennett impression has been amply practiced onstage — the additional challenge of separately characterizing the writer’s conflicting selves.
Even in duplicated form, however, the dithering playwright is a less overtly engaging figure than Shepherd, and however much the film frames itself as a story of Bennett’s personal and creative growth, a delighted audience is still going to view it as “The Maggie Smith Show.” It’s one she plays with broad, gusty aplomb, at least after a more downcast prologue that sets up the film-spanning mystery behind her circumstances: A vehicle collision is heard over a black screen, before the camera sheds light on a panicked Shepherd dodging the police, the smashed windshield of her van streaked with blood. Years later, it appears that neurotic evasiveness has become her standard state, albeit in more strident fashion.
When Bennett moves into Gloucester Crescent, a close-knit, middle-class enclave of London arts folk, in 1970, Shepherd is already antagonizing the residents, testing their liberal generosity with blunt demands and misanthropic rants. Classical music, in particular, aggravates her, with children practicing instruments getting the full brunt of her ire; any questions about her presence or plans for moving on are met with statements of daft Catholic conviction about her prescribed path. Smith plays her with equal parts antsy mania and arch, withering skepticism toward all surrounding her — the latter characteristic very much the actress’s stock-in-trade. That already gives the performance one more note than her much-garlanded autopilot work on TV’s “Downton Abbey,” but it’s enjoyable on the same persona-based terms.
Few actors could grant quite such imperiousness to a character otherwise so disenfranchised, but in doing so, Smith makes an odd sense both of her situation and the inability of others to intervene: Neither lovable nor wholly intolerable, Shepherd colonizes her immediate square footage in the very manner of a performing grande dame. In Bennett, whose working-class roots and guarded homosexuality already make him a neighborhood misfit, she senses a kindred spirit — though his own gestures of kindness to her are reluctant, coerced by social guilt and a dislocated sense of duty to his own mother (Gwen Taylor). When he offers her the opportunity to park in his driveway, initiating what what turns out to be an informal, 15-year traveler tenancy, at least one of his split selves rolls his eyes.
Hytner and Bennett dramatize this evolving turf war of sorts — one that gradually yields mutual understanding, if not quite friendship — in ambling, semi-sitcom style. The puzzle of Shepherd’s backstory, stoked by occasional nighttime visits from an apparent blackmailer (a leering Jim Broadbent), isn’t so urgent as to impinge on the general mood of day-to-day carry-on. Only as the ailing Shepherd prepares for the next stage of her journey does the tone briefly dip into something approaching profundity. An 11th-hour flight of spiritual fancy — the product, it seems, of the onscreen writer’s liberated emotional sensibility — falls decidedly flat. It is, however, one of the few ambitious visual flourishes in an evenly lit, perkily cut production that could as easily premiere in a calm Sunday-night slot on BBC television. George Fenton’s sprightly, tinkling score is its least anonymous technical facet, though perhaps its most excessive.
A tony gallery of British stalwarts fills the caricature-heavy roster of supporting roles, including Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and an incidentally hilarious Deborah Findlay as Bennett’s posh neighbors. James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett — all graduates, of course, of Bennett’s “History Boys” class — pop up in passing cameos.