Reasons for watching it Maggie Smith, primarily. And the set-up of an indigent woman living for many years in a van in Alan Bennett's driveway sounded interesting.
Circumstances of watching it We're doing some fairly intense prepping the first years for practical exams at the moment, which involves repeating the same mini-lesson 12 times in 8 hours spread over two days. So several of us were pretty shattered by 5 pm yesterday, at which point a colleague offered, who wants to go out for a bite and a film?
We ended up at Hector Garcia's, a chain Mexican place that's mainly good for cocktails and tapas. Since that's a bit intimate for a meal out with colleagues, we ordered entrées instead, and I was kind of disappointed with my chimichangas which just about rose to the level of pleasant, but were more heavy than hearty and more spicy-hot than interestingly flavoured. Plus one colleague who joined the expedition is one of those awful diets where you don't so much change what you eat as talk constantly about how bad you're being for eating food.
Verdict The lady in the van is a technically clever film which fell down for me because it doesn't respect its characters.
Both for good and bad, The lady in the van is very very Alan Bennett. So I think you'll probably like it if you like Alan Bennett and not otherwise. We studied him quite a bit in school, and I can remember writing a pastiche where I worked out my madonna/whore issues in ways I cringe to think of now. And I think my impression of Bennett's humour is much the same: he's very witty, and a sharp observer of human foibles, but he is unkind to his characters and it's a problem for me that much of his humour is based on the trope of, isn't it hilarious when mentally ill people can't quite cope with normal social interactions?
tLitV is a very nice piece of cinema, with great acting, a great sense of period where both the background and the actors' appearances actually change over the 15 years of the plot. I really enjoyed the way that the script is archly self-referential and meta without laying it on too thick, but exploring the way that it's a play about, and written by, a real playwright who incorporates a real person into his plays. I loved Alex Jennings' Alan Bennett, and his portrayal with two personae, his writer self and his self who actually lives his life to support the writer. And the supporting character neighbours are just beautifully Bennett nouveau riche Camdenites.
The problem is the eponymous lady in the van herself. I mean, Smith is just brilliant in the role, and apparently she played the lady in the original stage version too, which is another adorable layer of meta. But the point of the play is to laugh at her for being so traumatized (and possibly permanently mentally ill beyond PTSD, it's not very clear) that she lives in a van which she paints bright yellow with housepaint, and she is rude and shouty but in a posh accent, and she can't cope with personal hygiene so she smells bad. And the pathos comes from the fact that Bennett more or less adopts her and finds out about her past, though he doesn't act like a stereotype of a caring, philanthropic person as he's emotionally repressed and snarky. Which is all very well, but for a start, what about all the indigent, not entirely mentally well or socially competent older people who don't get adopted by rich, kind-in-spite-of-themselves playwrights?
I really didn't like the treatment of religion. The lady is supposed to be Catholic, except that every single instance of her expressing religious feeling is just another way of showing her to be cracked and socially inappropriate. Her ecstatic praying and her visions of saints are seen in the same light as her wearing a tea-towel on her head or peeing in plastic bags (and I'm not really happy with a script that pokes fun at a character for the latter behaviours either). And the church as an institution is just a collection of lazy stereotypes, including the one where evil nuns caused much of the lady's trauma by banning her from expressing her musical talents because it's not appropriately obedient to God to be a concert pianist, or something. I was particularly annoyed by the joke ascension scene, but I think that's partly because I really don't like portraying God on screen, and even more so when it's done in a mocking way.
Basically I spent way too much of the film cringing compared to how much time I spent laughing from genuine enjoyment, though there were some of the latter moments too.
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