The Lady In The Van
January 21, 2016
Mustang (***) PG-13
Tradition and routine are the illusion of permanence, a way of convincing ourselves as human beings that our own personal universe will continue on as it always has when in fact we all know in the back of our minds that everything must end, in some way or fashion. The concept of traditions and routines play a big part in the film Mustang. In the world of the film’s characters, keeping things as they always have been in the face of changing times seems to be the most important value, even more important than the individual’s personal wants, needs or desires. Mustang is an interesting meditation on the danger of blindly clinging to tradition for no other discernible reason than the excuse that this is the way its always been done.
Interestingly, Mustang’s setting is Turkey and yet it was made in France and is the country’s submission for Best Foreign Feature Film in this year’s Oscar race. Still, its subject matter is universal and it’s a story that could just as easily have been told by an American filmmaker so the fact that it was made by a team of French filmmakers should have no bearing on one’s feelings regarding it.
The film begins by focusing its early scenes on a group of teenage girls on the last day of school. We learn later that the girls are all sisters whose parents were killed some time ago in an unspecified accident.
Scene from Mustang
They are now in the care of their grandmother and their uncle. As the school day comes to a close the girls decide to take a dip in a lake on the way home. As it happens some of the girl’s male classmates make the decision to innocently join the girls and frolic about in the lake. A nosy neighbor reports the goings on to the girl’s grandmother and uncle, which obviously will lead to trouble considering the overriding puritanical attitudes that pervade the community.
The grandmother and uncle make the decision to turn the house into a literal prison, locking the doors and putting bars over the windows. The grandmother then redoubles her efforts to find eligible suitors for the five girls since that’s the way things are done in their community. One of the girls, Lale, the most defiant one, refuses to be forced into an arranged marriage and makes plans for her escape which leads to the film’s final act.
The film’s plotting is a bit too loose at times but the message of Mustang, its theme of female empowerment, is enough to overcome any shortcomings the film may contain. It’s a worthy nominee in this year’s crop of foreign film nominees.
At press time, Mustang is playing at the Regal Park Terrace Six in Charlotte.
The Lady In The Van
By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
There are cozy, innocuous pleasures to Nicholas Hytner’s adaption of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, but chief among them is watching two grand old talents — Maggie Smith and Bennett, himself — operating firmly in their self-created wheel houses.
Smith plays the ornery vagrant Mary Shepherd who one day turns up in her dilapidated van on the playwright’s North London block, where she stubbornly remains for 15 years. After taking squalid turns parked in front of different neighbors, she’s allowed by Bennett to settle in the driveway to his townhouse.
She’s a mysterious and cantankerous figure. Sharing her name with few, she explains that she’s ``in an incognito position, possibly.’’ When not impinging on Bennett for a visit to the lavatory, she chases singing school children, paints her rundown van yellow and skulks around, a cranky ball of rags and plastic bags. There are hints of a past as a nun, as well as an old sin that haunts her.
In short, Shepherd’s irascible peculiarities are tailor made for Smith, who’s given all manner of things at which to disgustfully wiggle her nose — the trademark power of Smith’s that’s no less potent as a foul homeless woman than as the dignified dowager of Downton Abbey. She can condescend, magnificently, from any height.
Smith played the role before in the 1999 play The Lady in the Van, which was also directed by Hytner, a regular hand of Bennett movie adaptations (The History Boys, The Madness of King George).
Maggie Smith is The Lady in the Van
But the play wasn’t the start of The Lady in the Van. It comes from Bennett’s own life. The story is mostly true: Shepherd really did turn up on Bennett’s Camden block, like a pre-packaged story for the playwright. He wrote about her first as diary entries for the London Review of Books, then as a short memoir.
Bennett turning the experience into art is a central part of The Lady in the Van, too. He has split himself into two (both played by Alex Jennings): ``The writer is double,’’ he narrates. ``There is the self who does the writing. And there is the self who does the living.’’ The film was even shot on location, on Bennett’s actual driveway.
It’s all a very twee setup and not exactly the sort of thing that sets the world ablaze. But at least until the fanciful finale, there are few false notes in the sturdy, pleasantly entertaining The Lady in the Van. It unfolds as an investigation into Shepherd’s unexpected past and a reflection on Bennett’s own motivations as a writer.
The Lady in the Van, sweet and sure-handed, is less timid than it appears, though, and Hytner’s film is ironically aware of its own modest position. ``So English,’’ one visitor says of Bennett’s latest play. ``Just what people want.’’
Three stars out of four.
FOCUS hopes this film will be playing in Charlotte or Hickory soon, but no information is available at press time.
Questions or comments? Write Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.