Daily Archives: September 12, 2015

The Lady in the Van – Director — Nicholas Hytner

There are two obvious reasons to see this movie, Maggie Smith and Alan Bennett (the writer). Those of you who do not know Alan Bennett are clearly not Beyond the Fringe fans. Beyond the Fringe was the most brilliantly funny stage show ever (yes funnier than Monty Python or the Goons and starring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller – okay my random plug for my favourite comedy troupe). Bennett however became and is an accomplished playwright and is a very funny and observant writer about the human condition. This autobiographical story is a great example of his style, wit and insight. The story is based on a real life situation in which a remarkable homeless woman played by Maggie Smith takes up residence in her van in Bennett’s driveway in an upper class neighborhood in London. Its intended she will squat there for a few months but ends up living there for 15 years until her death. There is mystery about her. She is in many ways a typical homeless person, malnourished, rude and cranky, and unsanitary. On the other hand she is clearly well educated, had trained to be a nun at one point and as it turns out is an accomplished pianist. None of her story is evident at the start but is slowly revealed over the course of the film. Maggie Smith gives an OSCAR worthy performance and the film will be in general release this fall so you can all judge for yourselves shortly.

The story of the film is about the relationship between the two and juxtaposes their relationship with Bennett’s relationship with his own mother who declines into dementia over the course of the film. While his mother declines, Maggie Smith’s character, who suffers from her own mental illness, thrives in her van. I, like most of the audience I am sure, could not stop thinking of their own mothers as the story unfolds. I confess to shedding a few tears not so much out of sadness as sympathy for the woman and the story.

We were lucky to have the director present for a Q and A and he was wonderful. It turns out he was Bennett’s neighbour through part of the 15 years the Lady lived in Bennett’s drive and continues to live just around the block. He also directed all of Alan Bennett’s plays in the West End including the theatrical debut in 1999 on which the film is based. Hytner is the former artistic director of London’s National Theatre and as I noted a charming, thoughtful speaker. He gave us much background about the film, the people and the neighbourhood. He also concurred with me that Maggie Smith is the best actor working today and possibly the best actor ever or certainly of our life time. I also would be remiss not to mention the performance of Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Apparently Bennett believed Jennings gave a far better performance as Alan Bennett than he could so Jennings got the part. I suspect Jennings deserves a nod at awards ceremonies too. I can’t recommend this film more highly to everyone. One of the best I have ever seen at TIFF in over 20 years.

Return of the Atom – Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola

I chose this movie, the only Finnish movie at the festival this year, mostly because of the topic. It’s a documentary about the 2002 decision to build a new nuclear reactor in a small town in Finland but also the first reactor to be built in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster which occurred in 1986. Since that time of course Germany had shut down all of its nuclear reactors and the fear of another Chernobyl has sent most Europeans down the wind, hydro or solar route to renewable energy sources. Not so in Finland which still generates something like 25 percent of its power from the atom. The building of the reactor has been plagued with delays and a project that was to be completed in 2005 is now scheduled to come online in 2018 at the earliest and has cost over runs that are 3 times the original estimates. All this plus the health concerns of course and the risk of melt downs, earthquakes etc. The film is too long and in Finnish with English subtitles. Sadly much of the story is lost unless you speak Finnish but it is still a very important story. It shows, not what one would expect: namely a town mobilizing to stop government imposing a dangerous new technology but Instead the story of a town oblivious to the dangers or the policy errors or else strongly in support of the economic boon it would bring. Only a handful of locals oppose the project and they are ostracized as cranks and trouble makers. The film makers take the side of the cranks but show inertia of the town in the face of government decisions and the resulting frustration and impotence of the small group in opposition.

The film is promoted as full of humour and presenting the clear lies and machinations of the corporations behind the plan and the dangers of public/private cooperation. However because of the language issues and I think cultural differences between Finland and really the rest of the world, most of the jokes were missed by the audience including myself and at the end there was no applause which is very unusual for a TIFF presentation. I think in part because the audience was not aware the film had actually come to an end until the credits started to roll. It was a very confusing story and presented in a way that did not engage the audience I fear. However, after lots of thought I was glad I had seen it and have thought more about the issues raised in the time since. The scariest thing is the acquiescence of the community to the imposition of the reactors (there are two already there and more are planned) as well as the decision to store the reactor waste nearby the town. It is really not so different from Alberta’s and Canada’s decision to allow the tar sands exploitation. The risks are not dissimilar and the lack of engagement of the communities is much the same. If we can’t wake ourselves up to these issues we are doomed. The humour of the film therefore is hard to react to because it is very black. You have to laugh or you end up crying with the cranks.