Does 'The Lady in the Van' make Maggie Smith an Oscar contender?


My third day at the Toronto International Film Festival began with two films from Britain, one a potential Oscar contender for its much-honored lead actress, the other a gorgeously rendered drama from a veteran director that falls just short of being a masterpiece.

With The Lady in the Van, Dame Maggie Smith suddenly emerges as a major threat in the 2015 Best Actress Race—that is, if the now younger-skewing composition of the Academy membership doesn't deny her what once would have been a shoo-in nomination. Adapted for the screen by playwright Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George, The History Boys) from his radio and stage play, The Lady in the Van is based on a most curious period in Bennett's own life when, against his better judgment, he befriended a cantankerous elderly homeless woman who parked her rundown, unsightly van on his street. Eventually, she used his driveway, and his bathroom when absolutely necessary; this arrangement lasted for more than 15 years.

The film, directed by British stage whiz and frequent Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner, begins with the sound of a terrible crash; the first visual we see is a distressed Maggie Smith driving the titular van, its windshield cracked and covered in blood. That's but one of the mysteries that keeps you intrigued as Smith's Margaret (or is it Mary?) camps her van on the Camden Town crescent where the reactions of the various artistic types living there range from amused curiosity to outrage. Over the course of the film, we learn that Margaret has been a World War II ambulance driver, a gifted pianist and a nun; now, she's a stubborn, smelly curmudgeon who can't even muster a "thank you" when people offer her food or other essentials.

Bennett, meanwhile, depicts himself at this time as a timid, easily cowed homebody who would seem to be asexual except for the handsome younger men who are periodically seen leaving his flat. As in the play, we see two Alan Bennetts (drolly played by Alex Jennings with neat visual trickery), the self-questioning writer and the one who's actually living his life.

At age 80 and seemingly not giving a damn about looking her age, Smith is still fully capable of carrying a film (and stealing a certain British soap opera as her side gig). The role of the lady in the van is an ideal vehicle for her, imbued with comedy and poignancy, and allowing her to be acerbic and exasperating yet still lovable. And she has some lovely scenes toward the end that her PR team will surely send out to the awards bodies. No, The Lady in the Van isn't for everyone, but audiences "of a certain age" will eat it up. And look for playful cameos by all of Bennett's celebrated History Boys, including James Corden and Dominic Cooper.

Veteran British director Terence Davies had an small art-house breakthrough in 2011 with his adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea. At TIFF, he's back with another adaptation, Sunset Song, with greater echoes of his early semi-autobiographical features, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Although Sunset Song centers on a young woman and is adapted from a Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the presence of a tyrannical father in the first sections of the film is very much a Davies fixation.

Sunset Song screened in the Scotiabank IMAX theatre, a welcome surprise since its artful, sometimes breathtaking widescreen photography of the Scottish countryside and early 20th-century interiors (by Michael McDonough) is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Davies favors static, beautifully framed shots and measured camera movements, and deceptively tranquil scenes shattered by bursts of cruelty and anguish. The story follows Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a farm girl who endures family tragedy and the harsh discipline of her volatile father (Scottish veteran Peter Mullan). Then circumstances change and she is suddenly liberated, and a handsome young man enters her life. Their marriage seems idyllic, but then the First World War erupts and the local pastor preaches that any able-bodied man who doesn't enlist is a coward.

Delicate, poetic and quietly compelling, Sunset Song is almost a masterwork. Late in the film, a key character undergoes such an abrupt change, it makes you wonder if Davies ran out of money to film a couple of transitional scenes we never see. It's a major flaw, but so much of Sunset Song is so extraordinary, I hope an enterprising distributor picks it up and venturesome art-house audiences take it to heart.