The Lady in the Van

the Lady in the Van

I went to see ‘The Lady in the Van’. This is what I thought:

The collaboration of two quintessentially English characters in actress Maggie Smith and playwright Alan Bennett, ably played with due diffidence by Alex Jennings, and the addition of an extended very English ensemble of France de la Tour and Jim Broadbent, promised a tale involving deadpan humour, acute social observation and very English quirkiness.

In the telling of the story of Miss Shepherd, an independent but tortured soul who spent fifteen years living in a variety of camper vans parked firstly on the road outside and latterly on the drive of Bennett’s London apartment, the director Nicholas Hytner delivers with a distinctly ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in Camden Town in the 1970s feel.

Described as ‘a mostly true story’ it begins with a road accident which forever determines the fate of Miss Shepherd and the outcome of which she cannot forgive herself for, however much she seeks absolution through prayer and from her alma mater, the Catholic church. She even joins the local convent as a novice to try and expiate her guilt but all to no avail. As a kind of penance and coerced by a senior nun, she abandons her great gift of music – she trained as a concert-pianist in her youth – and we are given an insight into such a sacrifice by an evocative and moving piano based sound track.

Miss Shepherd is excellently portrayed by Maggie Smith as a smelly, awkward, demanding, somewhat androgynous eccentric, who is not quite down and out and whose face is like an etch-a-sketch screen where lines re-construct themselves to register and convey emotion and whose eyes are more expressive than a hundred of Margaret Keane’s sad-eyed urchins.

Typically droll and understated, Bennett’s script is predicated on the trick of creating a ‘working’ Bennett and a ‘living’ Bennett who comment obliquely on each other, on the antics of Miss Shepherd as she insinuates herself into his life and on the residents of the street who in Thatcherite Britain undermine the prime minister’s vicious contention that there’s ‘no society’ by becoming Miss Shepherd’s informal, if rather snooty, community.

More official, if less effectual, pillars of social support pay fleeting visits in the form of the Social worker, the Doctor and the Priest as Miss Shepherd’s story unfolds. Bennett also seasons his script by counterpointing his role as ‘de-facto’ carer of Miss Shepherd with his ambivalent relationship with his declining mother.

Bennett veers into the Pythonesque surreal and the ‘arty’ absorption of drama into ‘real-life’ as the film reaches its conclusion, but in all this is a very watchable, very English piece. I think Maggie Smith’s performance might be worth an Oscar but I don’t think the Yanks will get it, though I believe they do love Downton.



The Imitation Game

imitation 4.5/5 stars

I went to see ‘The Imitation Game’. This is what I thought…

The story of Alan Turing, a mathematical genius and ace cryptographer and his pivotal role in the breaking of the allegedly unbreakable ‘enigma’, the coded message system used by the Nazis, is a story of complexity and intense moral dilemma which is skilfully and often poignantly handled by director Morten Tyldum in what appears to be a simple, if suspenseful, ‘race against time’ story.
At the heart of the film lie concepts of ‘normality’ and whether it is nature or nurture that determine our normality. The film is ostensibly set against the horrors of WW2 and the Nazi ideological denial of national self-determination for most of the world but also has as its powerful subtext the very British horror of the denial of the personal self-determination of homosexuals and of women.

The film tells its story backwards with Turing having been arrested for indecency by a detective initially convinced that Turing is a spy, following a burglary by a pub-met young gay man of Turing’s acquaintance. During the detective’s interview Turing explains why there are no records relating to him and thereby reveals his association with Bletchley Park and the top secret ‘enigma’project. Cumberbatch’s performance is superb from his initial interview at Bletchley Park (imagine a tweed suited Dr Sheldon Cooper) through his autistic awkwardness and isolation as he develops his code cracking machine, poignantly and posthumously named Christopher after his dear friend and protector at an academically mediocre yet typically bullying public school.

His relationship with Joan Clarke, whose mind and conversation he most values, played with warmth by Kiera Knightly, highlights another ‘normality’ of war time Britain, another failure of self-determination this time of women. Clarke is asked did she complete Turing’s challenging crossword herself as she enters a roomful of male candidates for Turing’s project and is politely re-directed to the secretarial test upstairs. However she is essential in seeing the project through and assists his ultimate success and vindication in the face of hostility and project close down, in cracking the code and in achieving some personal growth.

Struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a human being, the breaking of the code bestows not fame or glory on Turing, but rather the moral dilemma of the Gods, ‘who shall be saved and who sacrificed?’ as any untoward intervention in events made known through the breaking of the code would reveal Britain’s knowledge and thereby invalidate it as the Nazis would certainly radically change the way in which they send their messages.

The sinister machinations of the Admiralty, the Government and MI6 ultimately return Turing to his isolation developing the proto-computer, Christopher. Seeking human company leads him into trouble with the law and thus unfolds the tragic conclusion to his life.

This is an excellent film on many levels full of strong performances, powerful themes and emotional moments. This is also a film where you come out thinking ‘unbelievable’, for instance that homosexuality was only decriminalised in Britain in 1967 and that powerfully intelligent and capable women were denied to opportunity to participate in history-making projects due to the accepted principle that women working in a man’s world is somehow ‘indecorous’.

Cumberbatch could well be up for an Oscar. Go see.



Last night I went to see ‘Interstellar’. This is what I thought…

The problem with the recent spate of space films is that their directors seem content to dwell on long, picturesque shots of planets or of gravity-free people spinning around endlessly, utilizing novel mechanical devices often of a robotic nature to create an element of humour as if his audience has never seen these things before. So it is with Christopher Nolan and ‘Interstellar’. For Sci-fi enthusiasts this is all old hat and somewhat tedious. The ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ franchises among others have familiarised us with spacecraft of all shapes and sizes, planets with a bewildering array of difficult and dangerous qualities and an astonishing range of technologies, making them commonplace. In modern sci-fi, if not for Nolan, these elements are simply an unobtrusive means to the end of telling a good story. However, notwithstanding homage to Kubrik’s ‘2001: A Space Odyessy’ in visual style and theme, Nolan does have a good story to work with.

As in Kubrik’s film, mankind is at a crossroads and just as the obelisk acts as a catalyst for man’s evolution and colonisation of the Earth now mankind has exhausted its stay on Earth and faces global starvation. A new catalyst appears, a wormhole in space. With the assistance of ‘they’, an undefined benign entity which apparently has conveniently placed the wormhole close to Saturn, just within reach, mankind has an opportunity to find a new world on which to establish itself, the next step in man’s evolution.

Nolan contrasts games with time, multiple dimensions, black-holes and the interplay of quantum mechanics and relativity (indulging Nolan’s love of the limits of the conceptual as explored in ‘Inception’ and the limits of morality in ‘The Dark Knight’), with primal urges which remain. These instinctive drives give the film its emotional heart.

The relationship between ‘Coop’, a brilliant pilot living a frustrated and ultimately futile life as a farmer, played with energy if not conviction by Matthew McConaughey, and his family, particularly his brilliant and intuitive daughter Murphy (best played of three manifestations in her youth by MacKenzie Foy); his driving desire to save them, to find love in Amelia Brand (a rather insipid performance from Ann Hathaway) and to return home in time, creates a gripping narrative.

All of this is done in the face of institutional deception represented by Prof Brand uninspiringly played by Michael Caine; betrayal represented by Prof Mann ploddingly played by Matt Damon and the logistical improbability inherent in the mission itself.

There are some powerful scenes: the horror of the dust-bowl, mountainous tsunami, frozen clouds, insanely flexible and useful ‘slab-bots’ and the tension of communication between dimensions but like ‘Inception’ this film ultimately gets bogged down in its own attempted cleverness. Definitely worth a watch but be prepared to be baffled.

Mr Turner

Mr TurnerLast night I went to see ‘Mr Turner’. This is what I thought…

Famed for drama based on dysfunctional marriages and families, (‘Abigail’s Party’, Secrets and Lies’) Mike Leigh turns his hand to period drama and the dysfunctional family life of William Turner. Though when we use the word ‘family’ we tend to think of human beings, the opening sequence might as well be set in a pig trough as communication is virtually entirely in grunts and snuffles and animalistic gropes and the set is the shabby studio of the artist. He moves from here in and out of the land and seascapes he paints and the grand houses of the clients who purchase his work. In this environment, the strange relationship between Turner, his associated mistresses, his father and their housekeeper is played out. 

Disconnection is at the heart of the films episodic structure. Short scenes which seem long fail to connect in any narrative sequence.

Thematically, Turner also fails to connect with his long standing mistress and the children of his that she has borne him as he failed to connect with his mother and the housekeeper from whom he steals sexual intimacy from time to time. He is also at odds with the formal painting style favoured by the academy. He is a modernist in that he takes his inspiration from new-fangled steam boats and engines; he is intrigued with the development of daguerreotypes and in awe of the Crystal Palace which is to house the forward looking ‘Grand Exhibition’. There is also tremendous ‘physicality’ in his painting which Leigh emphasises in scenes where Turner uses his own spit and even particles of masticated food in his work and when he has himself tied to a ship’s mast to experience the impact of the elements on the ships movement.

After his father’s death, he takes refuge with another woman, Mrs Booth with whom he appears to find some happiness before his health finally deteriorates, mirrored by a deterioration in his reputation as the backward looking classical pastiche movement of the pre-Raphalites begins to dominate artistic taste all of which is imaged in a ‘Dorian Gray’ manner by the physical deterioration of his former housekeeper who is rendered lost by Turner’s desertion.

Spall’s performance as Turner is guttural and intense but the structure of the film doesn’t really allow an emotional engagement with him and ultimately the film fails to connect. Neither is there any attempt to explain or explore Turner’s genius. Not a film I would recommend.

The Wolf Of Wall Street


2.5/5 stars

Last night I went to see ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. This is what I thought…

Lupus is a ravening disease which eats away at the organ infra-structure of the body like a wolf from which the disease gets its name. The central premise of this film is the way in which ‘off Wall Street’ stock broking scams, insider dealing and the exploitation of the credulous, threaten to ravage the infra-structure of the capitalist world represented by the relative orthodoxy of Wall Street.

The film is very long, a cross between ‘Goodfellas’ and the ‘Three Stooges’ without the violence or morality. Scorsese is as profligate with celluloid as his central character Jordan Belfort, played with Gatsby-like insouciance and arrogance by Leonardo Di Caprio, is with money. Di Caprio appears with relentless energy in virtually every scene. He is a maverick whose dubious sales methods underpin the chaotic, unregulated, amoral stock broker world that regardless of its impact on the real world, feels that this form of exploitation is as ephemeral and therefore harmless as ‘fairy-dust’.

The film is essentially comic so the victims of financial chicanery are either not seen or simply condemned as greedy fools. Although drinking, drug taking and promiscuity abound it is portrayed as fun and literally without consequence. The effect of drink and drugs is invariably temporary and essentially harmless, a pre-requisite to effective trading to be regularly topped-up to maintain efficiency; the sex is perfunctory and non-erotic with sexually transmitted disease an occupational hazard simply treated with a shot. Naturally therefore the best scenes are the most comic particularly the discovery of a ‘cerebral palsy’ phase to the effect of drug-taking and its impact on driving a Lamborghini. Here Di Caprio is on form.

Tongue in cheek references to ‘Gatsby’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Dead Poet Society’, ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the seminal ‘Wall Street (1987)’ enrich an otherwise one-dimensional narrative. Although there is a hint of a movement from innocence to experience and some inherent generosity in the early depiction of Jordan Belmont, that’s as far as it goes. He is what he is and regardless of the buffets of alcoholism, drug addiction, marital breakdown, FBI investigation and intervention, betrayal by other stooges and a stint in jail, he does not essentially change or develop. The flicks from narratorial voice to patronising face-to-camera voice although cleverly putting us the audience in the same category as his other ignorant ‘marks’, are irritating and the authority of Di Caprio spreads very thin across the length of the film finally proving unsatisfying.

Solid comic performances from the other two stooges Donnie (Jonah Hill) and ‘Rugrat’ (PJ Byrne) and an engaging cameo from Joanna Lumley as Aunt Emma help maintain interest, but ultimately I was left cold and despondent as in the final scene the cycle of duping the gullible greedy began again. While these people exist so will the flawed foundations of capitalism and the wolf will always be at our door.