Category: BBC Films

The Lady in the Van (2015 Movie)

MrsMiracle_DVD_Sleeve3 Kernels

Let me preface this review by stating that the British do make quirky movies.  You can put The Lady in the Van into the very quirky category.  Believe it or not, it’s a true story that had been told previously in a book form and on stage.  Alan Bennett, the author, tells of his relationship with the homeless (except for her van) Mary Shepherd. Wonderful and talented Maggie Smith has played this role both on stage and film.

The story centers around an elderly woman who drives a dilapidated van. She favors Alan’s neighborhood and moves the van from house to house early in her arrival.  The neighbors tolerate her presence and attempt to be kind, offering her food and the like, but she’s undoubtedly the most cantankerous old lady you’ll meet.

Alan is a bit of an oddball himself in this story.  He’s a playwright by trade, and you see him much of the time writing about this fifteen-year experience with Mary (or maybe it’s Margaret – nobody is sure).  In his own oddball way, he has a double of himself in the storyline – the one who lives life – the other who writes about life. Alan is also dealing with his aging mother as the story unfolds.

Mary Shepherd is an interesting character herself, having lived in her youth as a gifted pianist. Twice she attempts to become a nun but the church doesn’t believe she’s nun material. When an accident happens in her van years before, she is plagued with the belief that she had killed someone. The guilt sends her down a spiral hole of despair from which she never recovers.

Lady in a Van is an interesting character study, set in a very small portion of London with occasional visits elsewhere. There is plenty of screen time with her van that eventually ends up parked in Alan’s driveway for the period of fifteen years. Maggie Smith’s costumes consist of filthy clothing and a pigsty of a location, but she shines as usual with her talent.  You may, however, find the role a bit shocking and beneath her abilities from the grand Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey to a grungy, grumpy, and stinky old lady. However, since Maggie has owned this role in the past on stage, I dare say she was the only one to do it justice on film.

In the end, it’s the story of where life can take an individual. As an elderly woman, she appears to have no more worth than the rags she wears. Nevertheless, underneath all the filth is a woman who was once revered and applauded.

Philomena (Movie 2013)

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, and Sophie Kennedy Clark

Philomena is well deserving of the 23 wins and 41 nominations received. Based on a true story of an Irish woman’s search for her son, the movie is a journey of discovery. Because it has so many twists and turns that will completely surprise you, I won’t spoil the outcome. (Tissues may be required.)
The story begins with Philomena’s encounter with a young man at a fair, with whom she has sex. As a result of her encounter, she becomes pregnant. Her family sends her away to Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland, where she gives birth at a convent that houses young girls who are pregnant out of wedlock.
During her time there, Philomena endures the harshness of working seven days a week and the constant condemnation of the nuns for her sexual indiscretion. Eventually, her young son and another baby girl are adopted by a family.  For 50 years, she has kept the secret of what happened to her, even though she eventually married and had other children. In her mind, it was a sin to have given birth out of wedlock and a sin to have kept it secret for 50 years. She can’t decide which is the worse of the two.
A journalist, Martin Sixsmith, decides to do a human interest story about Philomena’s experience and search for her son. Her own attempts to find out what happened to him have been unfruitful, but with his journalist connections he is able to help her discover his whereabouts. They continue their search in Washington, D.C.  It is here, that the story begins to surprise and shock its audience, but it culminates in a discovery you don’t see coming.
The movie is filled with themes, mostly around faith, guilt, regrets, unconditional love, and the ability to forgive the cruelty of the sisters’ actions. Unfortunately, Philomena is a woman driven by guilt of sins past and those present, which have been placed upon her by the church. Martin is a man who doesn’t believe in God or understands the reasoning of the Catholic faith, and he often clashes with her beliefs. 
The true story is also a very sad commentary of the practices of this particular Catholic abbey regarding their own lack of compassion and secrets. From 1930 to 1970 they housed pregnant, unwed mothers, buried the ones who died in childbirth from poor care, sold babies, and continued to make the girls pay for their transgressions with heartless treatment and hard work.  In the end, it was a story that had to be told.
Judi Dench is wonderful, of course. She was nominated for best actress multiple times for this movie, and the winner of multiple awards. Steve Coogan humorously portrayed the journalist, along with his cynicism over religion and the church. At times, you chuckled over some of his comments and the sparring between Philomena and himself.
All in all, it’s quite a good movie. Currently streaming on Amazon for $3.99. Be aware it may challenge some of your own beliefs on many levels.

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