THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016)

February 5, 2016

lady in the van Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner.  Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.

Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).

You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.

Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.

With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.

Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.

The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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THE BOOK THIEF (2013)

December 1, 2013

book thief1 Greetings again from the darkness. You may be familiar with the source material – the huge best selling novel from Markus Zusak. If not, you may be surprised at the “through the eyes” of an illiterate, orphaned child’s perspective of the German home front during WWII. You may be more surprised to learn that it’s narrated by The Grim Reaper (British actor Roger Allam), and includes a Nazi rally, book-burning, bomb shelters, a look at the anti-Jew and anti-Communist movements, the German conscription/military draft and the dangers associated with hiding a Jew in one’s basement (with similarities to “The Diary of Anne Frank”).

book thief2 There is no denying the melodramatic nature of the story and the presentation from director Brian Percival, but this one avoids schmaltz thanks to the remarkable performances of the internationally diverse cast led by the great Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and especially Sophie Nelisse as the incredibly perceptive Liesel who provides the innocence and powers of observation that prove to us (and Death) that good people will do extraordinary things no matter the atrocious conditions. Another young actor to keep an eye on is Nico Liersch, who plays Liesel’s Aryan schoolmate Rudy … a dreamer who imagines himself as Jesse Owens (not a popular view among the Nazi powers that be).

book thief 3 As Liesel’s foster parents, Rush plays a warm-hearted WWI veteran, and Watson plays a cantankerous, grounded woman hiding the emotion she carries for her husband and new daughter. The biggest piece of hiding involves Max, a young Jewish man who is the son of a soldier who once saved the life of Rush’s character. Max and Liesel have a wonderful bond as he teaches her to speak through her eyes and she nurses him back to health by sharing her new found joy of reading.

The ghost of the boy who lived in the shadows … from H.G. Wells “The Invisible Man” plays a key role as Liesel tries to make sense of a world that delivers a daily dose of relentless danger. As she develops her love and dependence on the written word, it’s clear that to survive in these times, one must have something that provides hope. The unusual story structure with the odd narrator, and a mix of wry humor, keep us connected with the characters and allows the humanity to shine through. Still, I challenge you to watch this without a lump in your throat.

**NOTE: the score is from the great John Williams, who once again excels in complimenting emotional storytelling.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the melding of a child’s innocence and strength can be enough to overcome the pain and shame of seeing how the Nazi movement affected so many, at least for a two hour period.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you care not to revisit any of the suffering and caused by WWII (even if it’s within a story of personal strength and survival)

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92EBSmxinus