If I asked you to think of an exceptional, older British actress, you'd probably think of Helen Mirren or Judy Dench, but The Lady in the Van is yet another prime example of why Maggie Smith should be on that list. I realise that's far from a contentious suggestion - she is a Dame, BFI Fellow, and member of the Actors Hall of Fame with multiple BAFTA awards, a Bodley medal, Olivier, and more - but I still think she lacks the recognition she deserves and her performance here is faultless. Then again, this is apparently the third medium in which she's played the role, having been dominated for her stage performance and critically acclaimed on the radio!
Nor is she acting against amateurs or second-rate support, either. Heck, whilst he may have made it onto the movie poster, the fact that someone as well known as James Corden is playing a literal bit role with maybe three lines speaks volumes*. The BBC clearly had the pick of who they wanted for this adaptation, particularly amongst ex-Harry Potter cast. And yet, it is Alex Jennings (also by no means an amateur) that really stands out as both versions of Alan Bennet. He's wonderfully British and makes the smallest of facial expressions laugh-out-loud funny at times. It did take me a little while to get used to the whole "split personality" Bennet character, but once the initial confusion wears off it works wonderfully, not least of all because there are a number of very clever camera tricks that I still don't fully understand how they pulled off.
As for the story... it certainly wasn't what I was expecting. I'm not too sure what I was, really, but based on the trailer I'd anticipated a little more quirkiness and humour, and a little less depressing social commentary. That's mostly because I hadn't realised it was about Alan Bennet, nor that it was based on real events. That's not to the fault of the movie, though, which is excellently interwoven (would you expect anything else from Bennet?). It keeps you second guessing a little, it's filled with all manner of hidden jokes and wry humour, and is just generally a very clever skewering of Middle Class Britain. Hell, the sequence at the nunnery is just about worth making the movie alone! Sure, the ending was a bit... oddly Python-esque, but it almost went so overboard to have worked. Almost.
In short, the movie was excellent. It's very much a slice-of-life piece, not some grandiose plot or hyper-real adventure, but in its own slow, methodical way it's really very fun (and funny). Plus it reinforces just how utterly phenomenal an actress Maggie Smith is, and for that alone is worth a watch.
* Having read up a little more on the way the film was made, this is me missing something. Every one of the class of the History Boys, another Bennet film, has small roles in the The Lady in the Van. Most of them are so well known from other works now I hadn't noticed the correlation at all!