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The Lady in the Van: Maggie Smith Shines in Quirky British Comedy
Based on writer Alan Bennett's 1989 memoir, the 'mostly true' story of one Margaret Shepherd - an eccentric homeless woman who back in the mid-70's decided to set up camp in Bennett's North London driveway and stay there for fifteen years - is beautifully told in Nicholas Hytner's The Lady in the Van; a humorous and touching tale of an unusual friendship brought to life by an engaging script and one deliciously weird and quirky performance by the forever-great Dame Maggie Smith.
Adapted to the screen by Bennett himself – his story was initially turned into a book back in 1989 before taking up stage in London's West End in 1999 - The Lady in the Van begins by introducing Alan Bennett (Jennings); a witty, dry and a seemingly withdrawn playwright who has just moved in to his new home in Camden, London. Thanks to camera trickery, there are two versions of the writer to be witnessed here; one is Bennett the man – a shy and a reserved fellow who deals with the outside world – and Bennett the writer; someone who sits, writes and complains about the lack of intrigue and excitement in their somewhat boring and complicated co-existence.
Things take an interesting turn with the appearance of Miss. Shepherd (Smith); a strange, smelly and a particularly single-minded drifter who lives out of the back of a van. After not being able to park her van out on the street anymore, Miss. Shepherd – whose unconventional characteristics have already ignited an interest in the writer – turns to Bennett for help. Taking pity on the poor old lady, he soon agrees for her to temporarily use his driveway which, as it turns out, she stayed on for fifteen years.
It's easy to recognise The Lady in the Van's theatrical roots with the movie bearing a somewhat of an artificial and at times, a distractingly stagey feel. However, that should not pose as a problem with the magnificent Maggie Smith at play, whose performance is so engaging that it's easy to forgive the film's tiny drawbacks. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, Smith is absolutely superb as the wandering oldster whose mysterious past involving a hit-and-run – something that serves as the major subplot in the story – has led her to where she is today. Her interaction with Bennett – a pleasantly reliable Jennings - is where the story's heart lies and it's his never-ending curiosity about his particularly strange squatter that ends up slowly unravelling the mystery behind her suffering existence.
Staying clear of unnecessary melodrama and over-sentimentalising its subject, The Lady in the Van is all about Smith's turn and, while its peculiar set up may not appeal to everyone's taste, it's hard to imagine anyone not being taken in by this 80 year old actress' immense talent and her incredible ability of commanding the screen.
Harrelson has a starry supporting cast backing him up made up of the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Ben Foster and Robin Wright Penn. Brie Larson plays Dave’s daughter Helen, and after him, she’s the best thing about the film. The relationship between the two runs on hate and scorn mixed with a twisted kind of love. It brings to mind the saying about how blood is thicker than water. How you can hate a family member so much and see them for the worthless scum that they are, yet still allow their opinions and words to affect you. It’s a toxic relationship, one of many in the film, yet it packs a punch that the others don’t.
The story is occasionally difficult to keep track of as it jumps abruptly from one topic to another, but Dave’s internal conflict is more compelling than anything the story throws at you. Dave and Helen’s scenes together are far more powerful and infinitely more interesting than any of the scenes in which he brandishes a gun or kicks a guy to a bloody pulp. The film has some fine camera work; it forgoes flashiness just for the sake of it and instead focuses on bringing the viewer in closer to the actors. It works with the actors to set the scenes’ mood instead of just framing them.
Often described as ‘the new Woody Allen’, writer-director Noah Baumbach – who made his film debut with Kicking and Screaming back in 1995 at the tender age of twenty-four – returns to the big screen with a distinctive dose of panache in the intelligent and witty cross-generation comedy, While We’re Young.
Like so many indie, coming-of-age films, Baumbach’s latest production asks the impossible-to-answer questions in this game called life. Set in Brooklyn, New York, the story is centred on forty-something year-old married couple, Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts), whose entire childless existence is brought into question when close friends Marina (Dizzia) and Fletcher (Horovitz) become parents for the first time. Forced to ask themselves some big life questions, the anxieties of being stuck in a rut, growing old and Josh not being able to finish his latest documentary project, are soon taken to another level when they meet a so-hip-it-hurts young couple, Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried). Charmed by their much-younger friends, Josh and Cornelia soon begin exploring and embracing their quirky life.
Written and directed by Baumbach himself, it’s definitely not the most even and balanced of pictures, though its honest and humorous look at the challenges of getting old proves to be a premise worth exploring. The funny and the not-so-funny differences between the two generations is portrayed with a mix of humour and sombre realism and it’s definitely not hard to spot a bit of Woody Allen-influence in the way the dialogue progresses.
As far as the performances go, Stiller is easy to root for and his portrayal of a middle-aged documentarian struggling to make sense of his existence is funny and relatable. Meanwhile, Watts, Driver and Seyfried are superb and the onscreen chemistry between all four is evident throughout.
While We’re Young is one of those ambiguous indie-darling films that the critics have raved about, but audiences have been much more hesitant about – the old adage that we fear what we don't understand is just as true in the world of film. The plot is engaging and welcomingly simple, though there is a sense that Baumbach doesn’t really have a clear idea where he wants the story go. But there’s something endearing about its misguided and muddled nature that serves to be a perfect reflection on its equally disorientated characters.