“The Lady in the Van”: Maggie Smith’s poetic performance gets lost in the film’s conceit of a writer talking with himself about the homeless woman in his driveway. 3 stars out of 4.

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For playwright Alan Bennett, “The Lady in the Van” is a hall of mirrors. It began its life in 1970 as a true story, in which a homeless woman took up residence in Bennett’s London driveway and stayed for 15 years. Later, Bennett immortalized the story and the woman, known to him as Miss Shepherd, in a memoir and a 1999 stage play starring Maggie Smith. Now it’s a feature film, shot at Bennett’s home and featuring Smith with two on-screen Bennetts (both agreeably played by Alex Jennings), not to mention a cameo appearance by the playwright himself.

So it’s no surprise that the film, directed by Nicholas Hytner, turns out to be far more about Bennett than its title character. And that’s a pity because, as played by Smith, she’s much more interesting than he is. The gimmick of having him in duo, conversing with himself (the idea is that one is Alan Bennett the writer and the other is Alan Bennett the man), too quickly becomes just that: a gimmick.

Meanwhile, Dame Maggie’s out in the van making poetry out of a not-quite-vacant gaze, or from the imperious phrase “green is not my color” while tossing away an offered coat, or from a weary moment as she listens quietly to a concert, reveling in a too-rare moment of beauty and repose. She’s playing a tragic, complex heroine (albeit one with a sense of humor) in a playful movie that doesn’t know quite what to do with her. You leave “Lady in the Van” entertained but troubled; it’s an agreeably but oddly off-balance film, juggling and nearly dropping the star turn at its center.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘The Lady in the Van,’ with Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, from a screenplay by Alan Bennett based on his memoir. 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 for a brief unsettling image. Several theaters.