In The Lady in the Van, the remarkable Maggie Smith can be found swathed in layers of ratty clothes, pushing a pram filled with protuberant plastic bags, snapping at neighbors (and the neighbors' children), and generally making a nuisance of herself. It's a far cry from the Dowager Countess of Grantham that Smith has played with all those haughty tsks and tuts in Downton Abbey - the opposite end of the spectrum, really, in social standing and the environs in which her character resides.

Adapted and reiterated from what has already been a memoir and a play, The Lady in the Van is based on British writer Alan Bennett's 15-year saga of having a profoundly unkempt and unpleasant homeless woman living in the driveway of his London townhouse. Smith played this woman, known as Mary Shepherd, in the 1999 West End theater production, and returns for the film, which likewise represents a repeat performance for the play's director, Nicholas Hytner.

Try not to let the film's overbearingly jaunty score get in the way. The Lady in the Van is quite a feat. For one thing, it offers another deft and deeply felt performance from Smith, who finds the frightened and fragile heart of this irascible "eccentric" - her slowly revealed history full of promise, possibility, and tragic turns. For another, it's a film about the writer's art and that strange process by which the outside world is extrapolated, exploited, and commingled with the interior one.

Bennett, played in bifurcated modes by Alex Jennings, is a shy, brainy, self-admonishing scribe. As Ms. Shepherd moves into his life, we see Bennett as both the reluctant host and the artist eager to extract all the juicy info he can from this odiferous (onions, excrement) squatter. Literally, we see him in dual incarnations: the one Bennett, hunkered over his typewriter, chastising the other, tamped down and woefully polite, observing Shepherd from the window.

The couples, families, and acquaintances who share Bennett's street in London's Camden neighborhood gawk, gossip, and carry on about the woman who sleeps in the rusted camper. It's a liberal community, struggling to balance its progressive political and social views with the uncomfortable reality of being in close proximity to a mentally off-balance and off-putting crone. So, The Lady in the Van is a story of compassion and empathy, too.

For Bennett, it's also a story about dealing with impossible old women: Mary Shepherd right there in front of him, and his mother (Gwen Taylor) living in a seaside town and growing more senile by the day. Guilt and responsibility dog his every move.

Director Hytner turned Bennett's play The History Boys into a film, and he sneaks most of its classroom cast into The Lady In the Van, in cameos. The 2006 release's stars pop up as an actor (Dominic Cooper), a doctor (Sacha Dhawan), a street vendor (James Corden), and so on. The real Bennett pops up, too, riding a bicycle down his Camden street in a neatly symmetrical final scene.



The Lady in the Van ***1/2 (Out of four stars)


Directed by Nicholas Hytner. With Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Gwen Taylor, Jim Broadbent. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz Five and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.EndText