The Lady in the Van reviews

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Re: The Lady in the Van reviews

Postby dws1982 » Sun Sep 13, 2015 4:22 pm

A shame her performance in Capturing Mary isn't considered that late-career triumph that it should be. Yeah, it got her an Emmy nomination, but that was one of those name-recognition nominations. The movie itself has never been released on DVD in the States. (It is available on Amazon Prime however.)

Big Magilla
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Re: The Lady in the Van reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Sat Sep 12, 2015 9:04 pm

I don't know about this one. It seems awfully slight. It might get her a nomination, but I'd be shocked it if she won.
“‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” - Voltaire

Mister Tee
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The Lady in the Van reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Sat Sep 12, 2015 6:32 pm

For Magilla, if no one else. This actually could get Smith a late-career acting nomination.

Hollywood Reporter
by Frank Scheck

The Bottom Line
Dame Maggie delivers an award-worthy turn in this witty dark comedy.

We're informed at the beginning of Nicholas Hytner's screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's 1999 play that it's "a mostly true story." Figuring out what is true and what isn't is one of the pleasures of The Lady in the Van, but the foremost one is watching Maggie Smith gloriously reprising her acclaimed stage performance. The veteran actress should be garnering plenty of attention at awards time for this film being released by Sony Pictures Classics.

The story which begins in 1970 concerns Miss Shepherd (Smith), a dotty, homeless old woman who lived in a broken-down, yellow van parked in the playwright's driveway at his North London home for fifteen years. Indulging her presence out of some combination of charity, morbid fascination and passivity, Bennett also couldn't help but see the dramatic and comedic potential of the situation.

The uncomfortable relationship between life and art is a principal theme of the film, one that is dramatized by the presence of two Bennetts, both expertly played by Alex Jennings. One of them participates in the action while the other observes and sardonically comments on it.

"I live, you write, that's how it works," one Bennett says to the other.

It's a device that worked better on stage than on film, despite the cinematic advantage of being able to have one actor in both roles. (To further accentuate the meta-theatrical aspect, Jennings has appeared onstage playing Bennett in another play, and is briefly seen in this film performing a monologue from the playwright's Talking Heads). Although the exchanges between the two versions of the character provide the film with some of its sharpest moments, they inevitably exude a stagey artificiality that proves distracting.

But it's Smith's eccentric oldster who is the film's driving force, and the 80-year-old actress doesn't disappoint. Not surprisingly, she fully exploits the humor in her character's bizarreness, reaping much comic mileage from her proclamation that she receives guidance from the Virgin Mary; her utter obliviousness to her lack of personal hygiene; her hatred of music that sends her fleeing whenever she hears a note, and her ragtag wardrobe that's been assembled from various dumpsters.

Besides mining the humor, Smith also subtly conveys the emotional pain and desperation of the addled old woman, especially in the scenes in which she's taken away by social services and gently treated to a thorough washing, feeding and medical examination. The character's backstory is ultimately revealed in an encounter between Bennett and her older brother that movingly illustrates how anyone's life can turn on a dime if afflicted with mental illness.

Although also based on fact, a subplot involving Miss Shepherd's apparently causing the hit-and-run death of a motorcyclist adds little to the proceedings other than to provide an opportunity for a striking, if brief, appearance by Jim Broadbent. The supporting players include a number of esteemed British stage actors including Frances de la Tour (playing the wife of composer Vaughan Williams) and Roger Allam, as well as James Corden in a cameo.

This marks the third collaboration between the scripter and director, who previously worked together on both the stage and screen versions of The Madness of King George III and The History Boys. The results are as assured as you might expect, with further verisimilitude provided by shooting the film on the very street and inside the actual house in which the real events took place.

Guy Lodge
Film Critic @guylodge

If crotchety upper-class vagrant Mary Shepherd hadn’t turned up on the North London doorstep of the celebrated playwright Alan Bennett, he might have had to make her up — if only to give Maggie Smith, our veritable Garbo of dingbat hauteur, one of the most tailor-made leading roles of her late career. Then again, perhaps Shepherd was partly his idea: The tension between life experience and authorial invention is the one complicating factor in “The Lady in the Van,” an otherwise heart-coddling, crowdpleasing study of two eccentric introverts — on opposite sides of the poverty line — finding common ground in more ways than one. Low on narrative drive, and marred by a misjudged final-act swerve into extravagant whimsy, Nicholas Hytner’s amiable luvvie-fest is enlivened by Smith’s signature irascibility; silver-dollar auds should turn up, if not in droves, at least in healthy vanloads.

“When I write about this, people will say it’s too much about s–t,” muses Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), as he wearily clears the feces left in his driveway — repeatedly, and without so much as a whisper of apology — by Smith’s homeless harridan. That’s an accusation few are likely to level at Hytner’s bright, polite film, the erstwhile National Theatre director’s third big-screen transfer of a Bennett play, following 1994’s “The Madness of King George” and 2005’s “The History Boys.” It’s plainly the slightest of the three, but has few pretensions to the contrary. An introductory title card declares the pic “a mostly true story,” breezily begging our pardon for its playfulness. Bennett’s play, based in turn on a memoir published in 1989, openly questioned its own substance and validity in the text; it was less personal for the past stories it recalled than for the present-tense artistic insecurity it admitted in telling them.

Such an intimate metatextual conceit is easier to sustain on stage than it is onscreen. Hytner and Bennett (once more adapting his own work) employ a tricksy device here, physically depicting the playwright as two identical beings in constant, argumentative conversation with each other. One repeatedly questions and counters the other’s narration as it unfolds, immediately alerting auds to potential exaggeration and confabulation in its remembrance of Shepherd, an eccentric nomad of indeterminate old age who mysteriously descended on Bennett’s leafy, upscale Camden Town crescent in 1973 and proceeded to live there, in a series of clapped-out leisure vehicles, for the better part of 15 years. It’s a somewhat fussy solution that nonetheless spares the film several reams of disembodied voiceover, and gives Jennings — whose effectively mannered Bennett impression has been amply practiced onstage — the additional challenge of separately characterizing the writer’s conflicting selves.

Even in duplicated form, however, the dithering playwright is a less overtly engaging figure than Shepherd, and however much the film frames itself as a story of Bennett’s personal and creative growth, a delighted audience is still going to view it as “The Maggie Smith Show.” It’s one she plays with broad, gusty aplomb, at least after a more downcast prologue that sets up the film-spanning mystery behind her circumstances: A vehicle collision is heard over a black screen, before the camera sheds light on a panicked Shepherd dodging the police, the smashed windshield of her van streaked with blood. Years later, it appears that neurotic evasiveness has become her standard state, albeit in more strident fashion.

When Bennett moves into Gloucester Crescent, a close-knit, middle-class enclave of London arts folk, in 1970, Shepherd is already antagonizing the residents, testing their liberal generosity with blunt demands and misanthropic rants. Classical music, in particular, aggravates her, with children practicing instruments getting the full brunt of her ire; any questions about her presence or plans for moving on are met with statements of daft Catholic conviction about her prescribed path. Smith plays her with equal parts antsy mania and arch, withering skepticism toward all surrounding her — the latter characteristic very much the actress’s stock-in-trade. That already gives the performance one more note than her much-garlanded autopilot work on TV’s “Downton Abbey,” but it’s enjoyable on the same persona-based terms.

Few actors could grant quite such imperiousness to a character otherwise so disenfranchised, but in doing so, Smith makes an odd sense both of her situation and the inability of others to intervene: Neither lovable nor wholly intolerable, Shepherd colonizes her immediate square footage in the very manner of a performing grande dame. In Bennett, whose working-class roots and guarded homosexuality already make him a neighborhood misfit, she senses a kindred spirit — though his own gestures of kindness to her are reluctant, coerced by social guilt and a dislocated sense of duty to his own mother (Gwen Taylor). When he offers her the opportunity to park in his driveway, initiating what what turns out to be an informal, 15-year traveler tenancy, at least one of his split selves rolls his eyes.

Hytner and Bennett dramatize this evolving turf war of sorts — one that gradually yields mutual understanding, if not quite friendship — in ambling, semi-sitcom style. The puzzle of Shepherd’s backstory, stoked by occasional nighttime visits from an apparent blackmailer (a leering Jim Broadbent), isn’t so urgent as to impinge on the general mood of day-to-day carry-on. Only as the ailing Shepherd prepares for the next stage of her journey does the tone briefly dip into something approaching profundity. An 11th-hour flight of spiritual fancy — the product, it seems, of the onscreen writer’s liberated emotional sensibility — falls decidedly flat. It is, however, one of the few ambitious visual flourishes in an evenly lit, perkily cut production that could as easily premiere in a calm Sunday-night slot on BBC television. George Fenton’s sprightly, tinkling score is its least anonymous technical facet, though perhaps its most excessive.

A tony gallery of British stalwarts fills the caricature-heavy roster of supporting roles, including Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and an incidentally hilarious Deborah Findlay as Bennett’s posh neighbors. James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett — all graduates, of course, of Bennett’s “History Boys” class — pop up in passing cameos.

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