The Importance of Being Elderly: Maggie Smith Stuns in The Lady in the Van

Image Credit – From The Lady in the Van by BBC Films

The Lady in the Van ‘s BFI London Film Festival premiere comes a week after new figures revealed that more than half  a million adults are missing out on care due to government welfare cuts.

I expected the film to entertain me – after all, it’s written by Alan Bennett (of The History Boys fame) and stars the brilliant Dame Maggie Smith. However, I didn’t expect the film to have such an emotional impact.

Adapted from Bennett’s 1999 play of the same name, The Lady in the Van is the “mostly true story” of Bennett’s relationship with Mary Shepherd, an elderly, homeless oddball whose van was encamped on the playwright’s driveway in Camden, London over a period of fifteen years.

Some criticism has been levelled at the film for its use of drama. For the most part, the film is a wonderfully whimsical comedy, with a predictably perfect performance by Smith. But what, to me, truly elevated the film was its engagement with issues of homelessness and old age.

Last year, the Institute of Economic Affairs labelled the government’s welfare spending a “debt timebomb”, suggesting that to solve the problem the government needed a “fundamental reform of pension and healthcare provision”. And the Lady in the Van reminded me of just how important welfare for the elderly and homeless is.

Over the past year, both of my elderly parents have relied heavily upon the NHS – I have to admit, I haven’t been particularly impressed. However, the movie alerted me to the plight of even the most impolite senior citizen.

Many of us are guilty of disregarding the aged and impoverished, despite campaigns by various charities attempting to encourage us to think about the loneliness of both situations. The multi-organisation Campaign for Loneliness claims that nearly one million over-65s feel alone and isolated.

In The Lady in the Van, Smith’s character is both verbally and physically abused. There were only a few of these moments on-screen, but they were some of the most important.

Vulnerable people like the old and mentally ill Miss Shepard are undoubtedly more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. And yet, most of us avoid such people due to a momentary sense of fear, or perhaps embarrassment.

In the film, Bennett’s arc compellingly exposes a man who transitions from perspectives. The begin with, Bennett sees Smith’s character as just a homeless old woman. Society has all but dehumanized her, and she is nothing but a nuisance to all.

But as the story unfolds, Bennett sheds this view, coming to appreciate that Miss Shepherd has, like anyone, a complex and rich history. She deserves dignity and care, things all too often missing from many people’s final years.

The Lady in the Van is one of those rare comedies that, after all the laughter, makes you pause to consider the real world. It is, without a doubt, one of the most affecting comedies I’ve seen all year.

The Lady in the Van is set for release in the UK on November 13th 2015.

Image Credit – From The Lady in the Van by BBC Films

Life in the time of excess: A Bigger Splash at the BFI London Film Festival

Image Credit – From A Bigger Splash by StudioCanal

There’s a lot to unpack with A Bigger Splash – from the refugees crisis, to our material culture to, well, arses.

A loose remake of 1969 French-Italian film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash follows rockstar Marianne Lane (played by Tilda Swinton) and filmmaker Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), a fictional celebrity couple on holiday on a secluded Italian island.

Serenity soon turns to hedonistic chaos with the arrival of an old friend (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Grey fame). As the partying intensifies, each of their lives begins to unravel.

Undoubtedly the film’s most interesting idea is it’s most subtle. Scattered throughout the film are shots of immigrants, mostly huddled in refugee camps – far from a throwaway reference to the crisis in Europe. The movie fawns over the privileged, white, debauched protagonists, despite their careless and destructive ways, whilst the poor immigrants, who only seek sanctuary, are dismissed and ultimately vilified.

What A Bigger Splash really dances with is the seduction and revulsion of our materialist Western culture.

The film has a scintillating sensuality, objectifying everything and immersing the audience in a world of temptations.  The camera is a wandering eye, one never afraid of lingering on a breast or bum cheek.

That isn’t to say that the film’s objectification is misogynistic – everything is fetishised indiscriminately. Fiennes’ penis makes a surprising number of appearances, and the camera traces Schoenaerts’ physique gleefully. Fiennes’ character Harry is said to be happy to fuck anything, and clearly the camera wants to do the same.

We obviously live in a tabloid culture, one in which we relish reading about celebrity sex lives and who went to what club. It’s easy to romanticise and sensationalise these things; We even find perverse pleasure in high profile breakdowns. But the reality isn’t romantic, and whilst the images and sounds of A Bigger Splash may appear sexy, the characters all feel grimy and damaged.

The problem with material culture is that things become just things, they lose meaning, a truth A Bigger Splash confronts us with. The central question of the film becomes: what effect does this loss of meaning have on how we treat human beings?

Just like the booze and the pills and the clothes, people become disposable in A Bigger Splash. The character’s seem to only care about themselves, not each other.

Undoubtedly A Bigger Splash isn’t for everyone. It’s a sometimes humorous, but frequently dark examination of a lifestyle we all seem to aspire to and worship. The film’s a technical marvel, perfect for film fanatics. But if you’re a regular reader of Heat Magazine, this may be one to avoid.

A Bigger Splash is set for release in the UK on February 12th 2016.

Image Credit – From A Bigger Splash by StudioCanal.

From Cook to Crusader: Bryan Cranston fights for the right to write in Trumbo

Image Credit – From "Trumbo" by Entertainment One UK

The week before Trumbo‘s red carpet screening at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden joined Twitter. And though that may be mere coincide, it feels like no accident.

Played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Dalton Trumbo was an Oscar-winning screenwriter whose career was all but ended after he and other Hollywood figures were blacklisted for their communist beliefs. Trumbo is the true story of his crusade against the American government and studio bosses as he fights for the right to write.

The film captures the frightening horrors of the communist witch hunts that took place as recently as 1975. In Cold War America, believing in communism automatically made you a suspected traitor or terrorist.

In this sense, the movie evokes defenders of free speech and civil liberties today. Both Trumbo and Snowden saw themselves as defenders of of those civil liberties, not as traitors. Liberal Americans like Trumbo had turned to communism before the Second World War, after the Great Depression, worker’s rights and fascism in Europe led liberals, and particularly intellectuals, to question the government.

However it’s worth noting that where Snowden leaked state secrets about the NSA’s spying powers, Trumbo was simply a private member of a legal and recognized political party – one the American government vilified.

In 1947 Trumbo, along with several others, refused to divulge his political allegiances to the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee, protesting: “This is the beginning of an American concentration camp!” As a result, In 1950 Trumbo served an eleven month sentence for contempt of Congress.

Critics of civil liberties activists have always argued that citizens with nothing to hide shouldn’t have a problem with government surveillance and the erosion of privacy. But, in one of Cranston’s brilliant deliveries, Trumbo points out: “You don’t end something like this by giving them what they have no right to ask.”

Perhaps predictably, the film hasn’t been universally well received, with some accusing it of being too biased towards liberal views. Indeed, John McNamara’s script is a scathing satire of political extremists – particularly on the right. The unfortunate effect is that the film is sometimes too kind to the left, portraying conservatives as ignoramuses who have nothing worth saying.

Helen Mirren’s casting as the main antagonist, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, was a clear attempt to combat this. However Mirren’s character was surprisingly one dimensional: There was a clear sense that Hopper was a formidable, independent woman, but her politics weren’t given a compelling justification.

But perhaps a film favouring the left is appropriate at the moment. Trumbo arrives at a time when socialism has become a dirty word in politics, despite the fact that most Western countries have socialist welfare states or healthcare systems.

The British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn has to convince middle England that his socialist beliefs don’t make him more extreme than Nigel Farage, whilst across the Atlantic, the Bernie Sanders faces a similar task if he wants to beat Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination.

Considering that the film deals with such serious themes, it has an incredible levity – one undoubtedly owed to director Jay Roach (whose previous work includes Meet the Parents and Austin Powers). Without a hint of exaggeration, I’d call Trumbo the wittiest film of the year – the screening I went to certainly seemed to achieve as many, if not more laughs than the likes of TrainwreckMe and Earl and the Dying Girl and even Spy.

Trumbo, then, comes highly recommended. I’d be surprised if Cranston didn’t pick up a few award nominations for his work, and the film was a brilliant piece of liberal art. Unapologetically, Trumbo declares that people have the right not only to believe in anything, but to say anything.

Trumbo is set for release in the UK on February 5th 2016.

Image Credit – From Trumbo by Entertainment One UK