Film Review: The Lady in the Van

“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”

It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.

This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life. Continue reading “Film Review: The Lady in the Van”

DVD Review: An Education

“Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous older men, but what about you two?”

Lone Scherfig’s film An Education was one of my top films back in 2009 and rightly saw Carey Mulligan nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Watching it again reminded me of how good it is, a great showcase for British film and one of my favourite depictions of 1960s Britain I think I’ve ever seen. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is based on Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her schoolgirl years, spent mainly pleasing her father’s desire for her to be an excellent student and get into Oxford. That is, until handsome stranger David offers her a lift one day. That he’s twice her age is no matter, the world of sophistication he inhabits seduces her entirely from her humdrum Twickenham existence and changes her life completely.

Mulligan is brilliantly cast as the 16 going on 17 Jenny Mellor, the combination of her youthful looks and soulful eyes captures much of the teenage precocity that leads her to think she’s more mature than she is, especially in the face of such rowdy schoolgirl friends like Ellie Kendrick’s Tina and as she rushes headlong into this adult world of jazz clubs, stolen nights in hotels and weekends away in Paris, she brilliantly shows how her self-assuredness is slowly stripped away as she comes to see what she has sacrificed in order to follow her heart. Olivia Williams’ brilliant Miss Stubbs is the perfect counterpoint, a spinster teacher who encourages Jenny’s academic dreams yet perversely epitomises the height of ambition for an educated woman. Continue reading “DVD Review: An Education”

DVD Review: Sense and Sensibility (2008)

“I think we all have to find our own ways to be happy”

Who else but Andrew Davies did this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for the BBC and to be sure, it is another cracker. I vividly remember loving this immensely when it aired and then being ridiculously excited as I was able to tick the actors off one by one as I saw them on the stage. From Hattie Morahan to Charity Wakefield, Dominic Cooper to Dan Stevens, Claire Skinner to the marvellous Linda Bassett, it is a wonderful cast and over the three hours of this version directed by John Alexander, they give great life to the tale of the Dashwood women as they are forced to downsize yet still find themselves suitable husbands.

Led by the widowed Mrs Dashwood (a wounded yet pragmatic Janet McTeer), eldest daughter Elinor (a magnificent performance of beautiful restraint from Hattie Morahan) and impetuous middle child Marianne (a deliciously spunky Charity Wakefield) have to dance their way through the minefield of male attention, conscious of the fact that their reduced situation may have limited them somewhat but hyper-aware of the importance in following their passion. Davies’ writing plays up the real difficulties for women stuck in a world where men make the rules and this more serious vein really works. Continue reading “DVD Review: Sense and Sensibility (2008)”

DVD Review: The Devil’s Double

“Latif Yahia is dead. He died in Iran. May God have mercy on him. Now I am Uday Saddam Hussein” 

I worry for Dominic Cooper’s movie career – since heading over to Hollywood his film choices don’t seem to reflect the good actor theatre audiences in the UK know him to be, yet he hasn’t been involved in any big enough flops to have given up on his dream so we continue to see him in dreck like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Need for Speed. Things looked a little brighter for The Devil’s Double, in which he actually delivers two strong performances, but with Die Another Day’s Lee Tamahori directing, the film is much less effective than it could have been.

Son of Saddam, Uday Hussein was a genuinely terrible human being, pampered beyond belief, psychotic in his tendencies and paranoid about being assassinated so former schoolmate Latif Yahia who bore a passing resemblance, was forced to become his body double. Cooper discharges both roles well – Uday’s predilection for the depraved is accompanied with a sickening giggle and Latif’s soul-sickness is barely hidden as he is forced onto the fringes of a decadent world of which he can never be a part nor do anything about. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Devil’s Double”

DVD Review: Starter for 10

 “Sometimes it’s not about knowing the right answer”

Starter for 10 may only have been filmed seven or eight years ago but for several of its leads, it feels like a lot longer. For it is a great opportunity to see James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch earlier in their careers and all exhibiting a youthful freshness which has now matured out of their performances. David Nicholls wrote the screenplay from his own novel, about a working class Essex lad to makes it to university in Bristol, the first in his family, and pursues his long-cherished dream of participating in TV quiz show University Challenge

McAvoy plays Brian, the naïf at the heart of the story, looking almost impossibly young and appealingly handsome and there’s fun to be had in his awkwardness at settling into uni life, his pursuit of the brittle TV presenter wannabe blonde Alice, played by Alice Eve and his burgeoning friendship with Rebecca Hall’s politically active student Rebecca. Hall is wonderful here, full of quirky charm and wry humour and as the ‘right’ one for Brian, even though he can’t see it, there’s a great pull to their relationship.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Starter for 10”

Short Film Review #15

 

The danger of ripping the piss out of something is that you often leave yourself open to the same charge. And so whilst Brian Crano’s 2008 film Official Selection sets about parodying many of the tropes of contemporary (and possibly pretentious) short film making, it takes a lengthy 10 minutes to do what it basically achieves in half the time.

It is undoubtedly amusing: watching Rebecca Hall deliver po-faced dialogue and simultaneously share an apple with a native American, Amanda Seyfried rubbing apple slices everywhere, Stephen Campbell Moore as a random astronaut and Dominic Cooper doing smell-the-fart acting, amongst many others, is lots of fun. And it is comical because much of it is true, so many of the arty shots here are highly recognisable as ways in which people have tried, and largely failed, to make their films more interesting. It’s worth the watch, but had it been half the length it might well have been twice as funny. Continue reading “Short Film Review #15”

DVD Review: The Duchess

“As they say, the Duke of Devonshire is the only man in england not in love with his wife”

Another of the films that I revisited in my period drama splurge over Christmas was The Duchess. This Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes vehicle did fairly well in 2008 and I quite enjoyed it at the cinema, though I remember being a little tired of the marketing shtick that overplayed the title character’s familial connection with the late sainted Diana, Princess of Wales and rather unnecessarily sought to draw huge parallels between the two. The film is about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who delighted and scandalised late eighteenth century society with her extravagance, forward fashion sense and a soft spot for gambling. Her marriage to the Duke though was far from happy though and as her public persona rises and rises and she becomes beloved of most everyone, behind closed doors infidelities and terrible betrayals push the Duchess to extreme measures.

I did enjoy watching this again for the most part and it is strongly acted, but for a film that covers at least ten years, it is surprisingly slow moving. Knightley in particular is excellent as Georgiana (I’ve never understood why she is such a polarising figure), a woman ahead of her time in many ways with her intellect and political nous having no official outlet in the society of its time and also challenged by being unable to contain her passion for Dominic Cooper’s Charles Gray (great casting choice!). Her portrayal deepens as the film progresses too, she becomes a convincing mother and pained victim faced with a harrowing choice as Fiennes’ passive-aggressive Duke finally rouses into action. He is superbly controlled throughout, almost terrifying with his impassive domination of all around him and the best scenes of the film, in my opinion, are the masterful shots at the long dinner table with husband and wife at either end and his mistress in the middle – beautifully, excruciatingly done. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Duchess”

DVD Review: Tamara Drewe

“You’re just a sex object, no-one would have you”

I did a lot of travelling this weekend so I got to catch up on a fair bit of DVD watching on the train: some were directly theatre-related and others not, but the cast of Tamara Drewe was so thesp-heavy I couldn’t resist jotting down a few thoughts about this film. Any film that opens with a shirtless Luke Evans and having his role as a sex object acknowledged within the first 15 minutes is surely onto a good thing and combined with Roger Allam’s deliciously fruity turn of phrase, the film made a bright start which endeared me greatly.

The film, directed by Stephen Frears, has a screenplay by Moira Buffini derived from Posy Simmond’s graphic novel-style drawings and is set in the sleepy village of Ewedown where everyone knows each other’s business and can’t help but poke their nose in. When Tamara, an appealing turn from Gemma Arterton, returns after her mother’s death to sell up the old family house, she thinks that she’ll be heading straight back to her adopted London lifestyle, but a new affair with rock star Ben, Dominic Cooper in fine form, keeps her a little longer and allowing old feelings and passions to stir in several men of the village, making life most complicated for all. Continue reading “DVD Review: Tamara Drewe”

16th Screen Actors Guild Awards nominees

Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award
Betty White

Film
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart as Otis “Bad” Blake
George Clooney – Up in the Air as Ryan Bingham
Colin Firth – A Single Man as George Falconer
Morgan Freeman – Invictus as Nelson Mandela
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker as Sgt. First Class William James

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side as Leigh Anne Tuohy
Helen Mirren – The Last Station as Sofya Tolstoy
Carey Mulligan – An Education as Jenny Miller
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire as Claireece “Precious” Jones
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia as Julia Child Continue reading “16th Screen Actors Guild Awards nominees”

Review: Phèdre, National

In surely one of the most anticipated theatrical events of the year, Dame Helen Mirren returns to the stage for the first time in five years, to the Lyttleton at the National Theatre. Phèdre was written by Jean Racine back in the seventeenth century, and this production uses a translation by the late Ted Hughes in his typical free verse style. As it is my second Dame in three weeks, my companion for the evening was once again Aunty Jean, and this review was greatly helped by our post-play discussion over a nice cool G&T.

It is a quintessential Greek tragedy: the queen Phèdre lusts after her stepson, and in the absence of her husband Theseus for several months and the dubious advice of her nurse, eventually succumbs to her desire. Unsurpisingly, the revelation is not well received and then matters are made immeasurably worse by the return of Theseus. In her desperation to conceal her illicit attraction, Phèdre then makes a terrible accusation which sets in motion a chain of disastrous events. Continue reading “Review: Phèdre, National”