Lady with stay­ing power

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

I

The Lady in the Van, n 1970, an ec­cen­tric old lady who lived in a van over­flow­ing with car­rier bags and all sorts of stuff, moved into Glouces­ter Ter­race, Cam­den Town, which hap­pened to be the Lon­don street in which play­wright Alan Ben­nett lived. Af­ter some de­lib­er­a­tion, Ben­nett re­luc­tantly gave per­mis­sion for the old woman, who called her­self Mary Shep­herd, to park her van in his drive and to use his toi­let — and she stayed there for 15 years.

In­spired by the ec­cen­tric­i­ties of the less than gra­cious Miss Shep­herd, Ben­nett wrote a slim mem­oir that he turned into a play di­rected by for­mer Na­tional Theatre di­rec­tor Ni­cholas Hyt­ner. The play starred Mag­gie Smith as Mary Shep­herd and Alex Jen­nings as one of the Alan Ben­netts; there were two be­cause Ben­nett had the idea of split­ting his char­ac­ter into the ac­tive Ben­nett who en­gages with Miss Shep­herd, his neigh­bours and the out­side world in gen­eral, and the Ben­nett who is pri­vate and reclusive and who does all the writ­ing. In the film ver­sion, which is also di­rected by Hyt­ner and also stars Smith, Jen­nings plays both Ben­netts.

The Lady in the Van is, as the open­ing ti­tle in­forms us, a “mostly true story”. And it’s as charm­ing and en­joy­able as it is de­cid­edly light­weight. Smith has a field day as the de­cay­ing, smelly, can­tan­ker­ous old party who is both in­fu­ri­at­ing and amus­ing. She adopts a vo­cal style that makes her sound like that great Bri­tish char­ac­ter ac­tress of an­other era, Mar­garet Ruther­ford; and she gives a scene-steal­ing per­for­mance of epic di­men­sions.

Ben­nett sug­gests that he al­lowed Miss Shep­herd to park her van in his drive for all those years be­cause of guilt — the guilt he felt about ne­glect­ing his mother (Gwen Tay­lor), but what­ever his mo­tives the re­sult is a film filled with rel­ish­able scenes and a cou­ple of ter­rific per­for­mances.

Along­side Smith’s cur­mud­geonly geri­atric, Jen­nings can’t help but ap­pear vaguely be­mused, but he does this very ef­fec­tively and the scenes in which he talks to “him­self” are ex­pertly writ­ten and per­formed. As a Greek cho­rus of chatty, sar­donic neigh­bours, Roger Al­lam, Deborah Find­lay and Frances de la Tour, flesh out the small cast, with Jim Broad­bent also mak­ing an ap­pear­ance as some­one from Miss Shep­herd’s past.

It’s her past that in­ter­ests

us. How did a woman who is clearly well ed­u­cated come to live in ab­ject poverty in the back of a rub­bish­filled van? Ben­nett delves into a back­story that in­volves Miss Shep­herd’s suc­cess as a pi­anist and the un­happy life she spent as a nun. Th­ese rev­e­la­tions, and the enig­mat­i­cally de­picted car ac­ci­dent that opens the film, ev­i­dently have had a haunt­ing ef­fect on Miss Shep­herd for many years — she can’t stand lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal mu­sic — and they sug­gest that a very dif­fer­ent treat­ment might have been at­tempted; a more se­ri­ous, thought­ful ex­plo­ration of how a woman like Miss Shep­herd wound up the way she did.

But Ben­nett and Hyt­ner, who pre­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated on the plays The Mad­ness of King Ge­orge and The His­tory Boys, and the film ver­sions of both, want to en­ter­tain. Miss Shep­herd is never pre­sented as a tragic fig­ure; she’s dis­arm­ingly ec­cen­tric and we’re en­cour­aged to be amused by her — which, of course, we are be­cause Smith is so ut­terly be­guil­ing in the role. Thank good­ness for her be­cause the film is oth­er­wise pretty slight, and the fan­ci­ful con­clu­sion seems mis­cal­cu­lated. Hun­gar­ian film Son of Saul, which won the Grand Prix (se­cond prize) at Cannes last year, sur­pris­ingly has not cre­ated a storm of con­tro­versy as it has opened slowly in art house cin­e­mas around the world. While many have been im­pressed by the sheer skill and courage demon­strated by di­rec­tor Las­zlo Nemes in his first fea­ture film, oth­ers have de­scribed it as ob­scene and re­pel­lent. It is cer­tainly one of the most, if not the most, con­fronting films I’ve seen. At the press screen­ing I at­tended, one se­ri­ous and im­por­tant film critic left the the­atrette be­fore the half­way mark, later ex­plain­ing that the film was just too much to take.

There have been, of course, films about the Holo­caust be­fore, some of them very fine. One of the best is Alain Res­nais’s Night and Fog (1955) in which the di­rec­tor of Hiroshima Mon Amour used hor­rific ac­tu­al­ity footage shot in the camps and a strangely calm nar­ra­tion to in-

Son of Saul, sist on the ne­ces­sity never to for­get what hap­pened in those un­speak­able places. Schindler’s List (1993) was a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence as one of the world’s most pop­ulist di­rec­tors, Steven Spiel­berg, adapted Thomas Ke­neally’s un­for­get­table novel into a film de­signed to tell the story of one coura­geous man and, through his story, re­mind a new gen­er­a­tion about the Nazi hor­rors 50 years af­ter they oc­curred. Far more prob­lem­atic was Ital­ian comic Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beau­ti­ful, a world­wide hit and Os­car win­ner that al­ways seemed to me ques­tion­able, to put it mildly, in its ap­proach to the sub­ject.

Son of Saul cen­tres on a son­derkom­mando, a pris­oner briefly el­e­vated by the Ger­mans to as­sist them in their mon­strous work. Th­ese men con­sisted of Hun­gar­i­ans and Poles, among oth­ers, and their com­mon lan­guage was Yid­dish. They ful­filled the kind of role im­mi­grant work­ers carry out in Western so­ci­eties, do­ing the dirty work that the rest of so­ci­ety doesn’t want to have any­thing to do with. Work­ing as a son­derkom­mando, the film ex­plains, doesn’t mean sur­vival; on the con­trary, it only post­pones the same fate that awaits all the Jews in the camp. Why, then, they agree to do it is a ques­tion that lingers through the film. Is it just to earn a few more days, time in which, per­haps, there may be hope for long-term sur­vival?

The camp de­picted in the film is AuschwitzBirke­nau, the most no­to­ri­ous ex­ter­mi­na­tion cen­tre, and the pro­tag­o­nist is the sig­nif­i­cantly named Saul Aus­lan­der (For­eigner or Out­sider), who is por­trayed with steely in­ten­sity by non­pro­fes­sional ac­tor Geza Rohrig. The open­ing scenes set the stage as Aus­lan­der and his com­rades as­sist the Nazis to process a new train­load of vic­tims, who are forced to un­dress and herded into the gas cham­bers. I should stress that the film doesn’t ac­tu­ally show th­ese hor­rors. The cam­er­a­work clings to the char­ac­ter of Aus­lan­der like a leech, keep­ing him in fo­cus while in the back­ground the fate of the vic­tims is so out of fo­cus as to be (de­lib­er­ately) un­de­ci­pher­able. But though we can’t — mer­ci­fully — see the hor­rors we can hear them, and the sound­track is filled with cries and whis­pers, com­mands and screams. It is truly chill­ing.

The nar­ra­tive, scripted by the di­rec­tor and Clara Royer, in­volves Aus­lan­der’s at­tempts to ar­range an Ortho­dox fu­neral ser­vice for the youth he be­lieves, prob­a­bly in­cor­rectly, is his son. His ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour, in the midst of so much hor­ror and death, pro­vides chill­ing drama, and the per­for­mance of Rohrig (known in Hun­gary as a poet) is ut­terly com­pelling. Tech­ni­cally, too, the film is out­stand­ing with its un­set­tling sound­track (Ta­mas Zanyi) and fine pho­tog­ra­phy (Matyas Erdely). But to say that this is a chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is an un­der­state­ment.

Mag­gie Smith as Mary Shep­herd in

above; Chris­tian Harting and Geza Rohrig in

below

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