The Lady in the Van – LFF Review

The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett brings his award winning play to the big screen. The play and film in question are a comedy drama about Alan Bennett himself (Alex Jennings) and the van-dwelling lady (Maggie Smith) who took up residence on his driveway in the 1970s and stayed for over a decade. Despite what the title might suggest, and with this being a Bennett production, Alan Bennett is very much the lead character. Alan provides narration not just as a voiceover but as the character onscreen talking to a secondary version of himself. If you’re going to put yourself in your film why not put yourself in their twice? As such your enjoyment of The Lady in the Van is very much limited to how much you enjoy Alan Bennett, or at least Jennings’ interpretation of him.

You will also need a large tolerance for Maggie Smith playing a cantankerous old woman as she features almost as heavily as the faux Bennett. Thankfully I have a high Bennett threshold and find Smith to be the only bearable element of Downton Abbey so could cope with everything that The Lady in the Van had to offer. I’m not suggesting the film is an ordeal but know that some people cannot tolerate certain representations.

The plot is relatively simple. When Alan moves into a house in Camden he is soon introduced to Miss Shepherd, an elderly lady who lives in a van which she moves around outside each residence as the mood takes her. Seeking to ease his conscious more than anything else Alan reluctantly allows her to park her van on his driveway. Initially this is supposed to be a short term solution but neither ever see fit to change the arrangement. As he provides a modicum of care this this stranger he struggles with his mother’s declining health as she slowly loses her faculties back in Alan’s hometown. Much as Alan does not want to equate the two women he frequently finds them occupying the same brain space.

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Bennett has written this story numerous times before, Smith has played the same character previously both on stage and on the radio, and director Nicholas Hytner worked with them both on the theatre production. Alex Jennings is the only new element in this project and he tackles the role of Alan by capturing his essence without coming across as a mere imitation. Smith is clearly very comfortable in the role, and in her van, and takes great relish in delivering endless witty lines whilst wearing a night dress and surrounded by filth, all with a degree of pathos thrown in. Meanwhile Bennett and Hytner have successfully managed to expand the existing material to create a film that does not feel like a play. Often play adaptations could easily be imagined on stage but The Lady in the Van feels distinctly cinematic, not least because so much of it takes place outside rather than in a single room.

The Lady in the Van is a fun little oddity exploring loneliness, community, and codependency. Bennett writes himself with a witty self deprecation and Maggie Smith brings the kind of energy her fans have come to expect. If either Bennett or Smith are outside your comfort zone then steer clear otherwise you’re going to enjoy this one.

Brooklyn – LFF Review

Brooklyn

“Calm and civilised and charming” is how Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) describes her hometown in Ireland after returning for a visit from Brooklyn but she could have easily have been describing the very film she was in. Brooklyn is a beautiful and sentimental film set in the 1950s when Eilis moves from Ireland to start a new life in Brooklyn. At first she struggles with being so far from home but eventually love and a career start to blossom and Brooklyn feels more and more like home. Upon returning home for a visit for a few months Eilis becomes conflicted and must decide where her home, and her heart, truly lie.

All sounds delightful doesn’t it?

What Brooklyn captures well is the feeling of moving far away from home to a more exciting place that is initially much more lonely. Saoirse Ronan is a sympathetic lead, and refreshingly Irish for a change, and easily gets the audience on her side and rooting for her in the big city. Helping her out in Brooklyn are Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters in relatively small roles but both exuding the warmth they so naturally bring to the screen. I almost shed a tear as she sat crying over letters from home. It was all very moving, beautifully shot, and winningly acted.

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The film as a whole was very sumptuous to look at. It felt like watching an advert for some indulgent premium confectionery. This is all very pleasing to the eyes but had the effect of removing me somewhat from the emotional side of the film. There are some pivotal relationships involving Eilis but I could not buy into them fully. The golden sheen of the film smoothed out any real intimacy between those involved. The climax of the film involves Eilis making a choice but the outcome felt inconsequential as I was not invested in either option.

Brooklyn is calm and civilised and charming. It is easy to get swept up in its chocolate box charms but I defy you to truly get invested in any of the romance. Saoirse Ronan is a strong actor and capably leads the film but the limitations in Nick Hornby’s script hold her back.

Good but not great Brooklyn is the kind of film the whole family can watch on a cold autumn evening.

Brooklyn airs on the 12th, 13th, and 14th October and tickets are still available to buy.

Cloud Atlas – Film Review

Cloud Atlas

You’ll have to excuse me, I’m a little confused.

I came out of watching Cloud Atlas, an epic 162 minute long exploration in storytelling consisting of six strands spanning 472 years with a cast taking on multiple roles, with my mind fully blown only to discover when researching the film online that it had been panned by the critics, ignored by American audiences, and completely snubbed by all major award ceremonies. What was going on? Did I see the same film?

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Recently I have been struggling to stay awake in the cinema as films constantly breach the two-hour mark without managing to keep me engaged for the duration. Prometheus, Lincoln, and Holy Motors have all been treated to the sight of me jerking awake after my brain has decided it would rather make its own entertainment than continue watching the events unfolding on-screen. Cloud Atlas is minutes away from entering three-hour territory and yet the time flew by and I was enthralled throughout. If your film’s duration equals that of The Hobbit and I manage to stay awake even after a full day’s work then you deserve an instant five stars.

Speaking of The Hobbit… In the same amount of time Cloud Atlas manages to tell six different stories whilst Peter Jackson ekes out just one third of a book. In David Mitchell’s original novel the six different plots (three in the past, one in the present, and two in the future) are each told in two parts. Each story’s first half follows another before they are each concluded in reverse order. In the film adaptation the six stories are introduced one after another and then inter-cut and overlap throughout the rest of the film.

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The constant swapping of storylines is disorientating at first and the film demands your full attention in order that you manage to follow all the various threads running concurrently. Perhaps it is this active engagement that had me so engrossed. I couldn’t let my mind wander for a moment for fear of losing my footing as six stories unfolded at once. Not only does the narrative sextet span various time periods; the film also encompasses every genre of film there is. Drama, comedy, romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, sci-fi, and adventure are all represented next to, on top of, and through one another.

The monologue of a lovestruck man from 1936 will play out over footage from a dystopian future and a slave rigging the sails on a boat in the mid-19th century will smash cut into a laser fight high above a city without anything jarring. The three directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski have created a superb cinematic blend of styles, tones, and genres. What ties the six threads together isn’t necessarily obvious and certainly isn’t obliquely explained to the audience; another sign that this is not a film underestimating its audience but expecting them to keep up and think for themselves.

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As mentioned earlier the majority of characters across the diverse plots are played by the same core cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Keith David all play between four and six distinct characters, often taking on various genders, ages, and races with the aid of some excellent prosthetics. Hugh Grant is frequently the first to admit that he mostly plays the same character in all his films but in Cloud Atlas he raises his game to match those around him. Everyone is on top form and it is a shame that so much work has gone into a film that has been completely overlooked.

Cloud Atlas is a visual feast filled with every genre of film and every emotion. I always hesitate to use this word but there’s no denying that Cloud Atlas truly is epic. Amazing that fantasy, comedy, drama, thriller, romance, sci-fi and period settings can all meld into the one film. Mind-blowing.

Who cares what anybody else says? I bloody loved it.

Arthur Christmas – Trailer

Somehow passing me by until now, Arthur Christmas tells the tale of Santa’s son and his quest to bring Christmas to one small girl and is out this Friday.

Made by Aardman and starring James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Kevin Eldon, Hugh Laurie and Ramona Marquez (star of Outnumbered) this is one film to get excited about and could well enter the halls of fame as a new Christmas favourite. After watching this trailer I couldn’t help but share it:

The Harry Potter Retrospective – The Adults

While the younger cast of the Harry Potter series may well have been works in progress, the adult roles were filled with pretty much every working actor in Britain with a familiar face. It was these actors who initially kept us coming back for more, without whom we may never have learnt to love the boy wizard and his chums. Below we run through our top fifteen of the adult performances across the eight films in alphabetical order. We tried to whittle it down with no success.

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
Alan Rickman as Severus SnapeWe start with an actor whose performance has ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and often in the same film. As Harry’s most consistent antagonist Snape offered up an ambiguous character, often seeming to be more evil that he was. What makes Rickman’s performance legendary are his epic pauses and dangerously slow delivery, as if trying to get as much screen time as his brief dialogue will allow. In the final film Rickman delivers both his slowest speech and his most moving performance. There are few better in this list.

David Bradley as Argus Filch
David Bradley as Argus FilchIt’s hard to believe that in the earlier films the major danger was being caught out of bed by Filch, a far cry from the fantastical battles the franchise concludes with. While often a menace to our heroes, Filch was ultimately a fun character bringing two of the biggest laughs in the finale and a warm nostalgic feeling with them.
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