Friday 4 March 2016

The Lady In The Van (2016) - Movie Review

Maggie Smith is one of a cavalcade of British actors that, thanks to a pop culture phenomenon that the original creator keeps bringing back in public consciousness every few weeks or so, everyone should be at least partially familiar with. Of course, just calling her Professor McGonagall would be a massive disservice to a very prominent actor, having done numerous Shakespeare adaptations as well creeping into the collective consciousness through the side door thanks to her portrayal of Wendy in Spielberg’s Hook. However, even with her storied history behind her, the last few years haven’t been kind to Dame Smith. Don’t get me wrong, I hear good things about Quartet and My Old Lady, but in the space of 4 years since Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released, she has appeared in the mindfrag Shakespeare pissing-on-grave that is Gnomeo & Juliet as well as the previously reviewed death knells that are the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films. I can be forgiven, even considering her definite skill in the craft, for being a little hesitant with this one.

The plot: Playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), upon encountering the eccentric Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) on his street, allows her to park her van in his driveway until she can get back on her feet. Over the next 15 years of her residency, the two form an unlikely bond as Alan discovers more about Mary’s history and the events that she has spent so long running away from, even if her antics have resulted in sheer disdain from pretty much everyone else in the neighbourhood.

Even considering some of the other films I’ve looked at on this blog like Lost River, which only within the last week or so have I managed to get a decent handle on what the hell it was even about, this would still rank up there as one of the more surreal films I’ve sat through during my time writing about such things. Sure, an old woman decorating her van with paint mixed with cake is (relatively) normal but then there’s that British sense of humour that all of it is wrapped up in. That outward stance of “nothing out of the ordinary here”, combined with the excellent deadpan deliveries of the cast, bring out a weird form of normality to what is a very bizarre story that is (mostly) based on real life events. Jennings fulfils his role as the observer of the story without coming across as entirely passive to the events around him; that is honestly not that easy to pull off, and bonus points with how Jennings pulls off his bone-dry one-liners with definite precision. Jim Broadbent, portraying a rather shady person that pops in from time to time, manages to make his otherwise shallow character one of the most memorable things about the film. I could pretty much watch Broadbent be menacing but ultimately harmless all damn day.

However, without an atom of a shadow of a doubt of a partridge in a pear tree, it’s Maggie Smith who deserves all the props here. Between her recent track record for films post-McGonagall and how often I’ve seen the curmudgeonly old person character get botched in frequently horrific ways, I was honestly kind of worried about this performance going into it. And yet, right from the start, she gave her increasingly uncouth drifter a sense of poise and dignity that, no matter what she ended up saying, still made her fun to watch. And yet, she wasn’t reduced to a complete joke in this film either. In fact, in terms of sheer characterisation, she might be one of the best written I’ve seen in a long while. Without getting too heavy into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that for as many bizarre things she ends up saying and doing in this film, there is a legitimate reason for each of them. What’s more, said reasons aren’t all shoved right in the face of the viewer, instead leaving enough breadcrumbs for the audience to follow on their own. I know that I’ve made mention of other films doing this before but, probably as a result of watching too many shite YA adaptations, I’ve grown an appreciation for films that don’t feel the need to hand-hold the viewer all the way through. Once the proper drama of her character kicks in, it rightfully kicks straight at the gut, resulting in a story that is definitely humorous in that oh-so stuffy way but emotionally resonant like I desperately wish more films were.

And then there’s the added feature of how Alan Bennett himself factors into the story. Now, considering the aforementioned ‘based on actual events’ and the fact that the writer put himself a little to the left of the centre of the plot, there was an additional worry that this was going to go into premise-centric aggrandising. You know, where the writer makes himself the heart and soul of the story despite what rightfully should be; kind of like Adaptation, which was so drenched in metafiction navel-gazing that I still can’t believe it’s as well regarded as it is. Anyway, tangent… actually, not that much of a tangent as it turns out, since this shares a few chords with that film. For starters, this film also has the main writer playing two identical roles. However, rather than playing his own fictional twin brother, he is playing himself; rather, his writing self alongside his real-life self. It’s a little head-scratchy at first glance but, thanks to a decent double-act from Jennings, it gives the notion not only urgency but also the film’s best jokes. This film opens with a placard stating that this is “mostly” based on a true story and the script readily pokes fun at its own inaccuracies, culminating in one of the most jarring yet fitting finales I’m likely to see for a film all year.

Throughout Bennett and Bennett’s monologuing about the nature of the story that they are in and what did actually happen versus what one or both of them thinks should have happened, a rather interesting point is brought up. This ties in with my thoughts concerning last month’s Steve Jobs and probably one of my bigger philosophies when it comes to film in general: Must a film adhere strictly to reality? This is something that probably feels most relevant now than at any time before, given how much further digging is being done to find IRL tales to adapt to the big screen. Entire discussions, methods of thought, websites, even communities, have been built on the disconnect between what actually happened and what was invented for X reason (dramatic license, or "because I can", being one of the bigger ones).

With how Bennett portrays both sides of himself, the writer sitting back and essentially creating the world around him while the ‘actual’ Bennett lives within it, we get a solid depiction of that disconnect and, honestly, why it should exist to begin with. Fiction, which at its core is what film is, isn’t bound to the laws of causality like actual life: Over the course of an hour and half, 15 years can pass by without nary a mention or even the witnesses consciously noticing it until it is brought up in-universe. With a story that is this out of the ordinary to begin with, it reaches that line between reality and fiction all on its own before Bennett put his first word about it to paper. Truth being stranger than fiction may be a factual statement, and it most certainly is here, but it isn’t always as compelling as fiction; hell, one of the more dramatic confrontations of the film was fabricated by the film’s own admission. And once again, much like with Steve Jobs, I’m not exactly in a position nor mood to complain about that.

All in all, even with the film’s basis in fact resulting in a tale of strangeness normally reserved for Dave Gorman road shows, this is a fantastically realised work. The acting is outstanding, in particular Smith bringing exquisite life and dignity to her vagrant character, the writing balances deadpan snark and genuine tenderness and the themes of not only personal guilt but also the nature of true events on film make for a fascinatingly layered story. Have to admit, going into this, I wasn’t expecting anything this good; thankfully, I welcome the concept of being proven wrong, especially if it means watching more movies like this in the near future.

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