The Librarian’s Cellar: The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van is based on a true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and the mysterious homeless woman, Mary Shepherd, who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and ended up staying there for 15 years.

This is a wondrous film, not alone for Bennett’s brilliant comic/drama screenplay, but also for the lead roles played so engagingly by Maggie Smith (Miss Shepherd) and Alex Jennings (Bennett – complete with dual voices of self and writer self). It is also a gently portrayed mystery – who is Mary Shepherd? What is her story, her past, and how did she become this eccentric old bag lady? And why can’t she bear to hear music? Beneath the frail, defiant skin and nervous energy, her fate is mastered by the act of parking her stinky, battered van outside a stranger’s house in Camden. A stranger who just happens to be Alan Bennett, a sensitive, compassionate, imaginative type (with biting wit!) who also just happens to be a brilliant playwright.

There is a poignant subtext to the film in the relationship between Bennett and his own elderly mother, mental illness being a tenuous ribbon of connection to his uneasy friendship with Miss Shepherd, fear, sadness and life lessons reflected through her contrariness. The frailty of aging and how it strips away dignity is dealt with unflinchingly, though in that most humanistic perspective of finding humour in the idiosyncrasies. Even with that most defiant trait of human nature, in the end, how helpless we become.

 

 

The Librarian’s Cellar: VIVA

This film should come with a warning: make sure to wear waterproof mascara!

Seriously though – no surprise at all that it was put forward for nomination for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. With Benicio Del Toro on board as executive producer, the film was written by Irish Screenwriter, Mark O’Halloran, who also plays a cameo role. Directed by Paddy Breathnach, produced by Robert Walpole, Cathleen Dore and Rebecca Flanagan, [Treasure Films] and anchored by a superb cast of actors, collectively they have created a sublime and authentic Cuban film.

Set in Havana, Viva tells the tale of Jesus, played by Héctor Medina, a hairdresser and sometimes hustler who dreams of becoming a drag queen performer – and you literally cannot take your eyes off this incredible actor! When Mama, the queen, owner and headline act of his underground drag club – Luis Alberto Garcia, superbly cast in the role of mentor to Jesus – gives him a chance to be on stage, a violent stranger appears, proclaiming to be his estranged father, Angel, played by Jorge Perugorria. Just released from prison, a former boxer, Perugorria’s every scene is a simmering, tense performance. Father and son are forced together now as the very flawed and menacing Angel takes up uninvited residence in the family home where Jesus has struggled to survive; these men could not be more opposite.

With all of the elements that you would expect from an O’Halloran screenplay, humour, pathos, realism and a very relatable dilemma, Viva stands out, not just for the authentic, mesmerising performances from the main players, the punch-perfect soundtrack, and the sticky, crumbling decadence of the city of Havana, the beautiful slum, as Angel describes it, every character in this film is empathic and fully-formed. Put Viva on your ‘must see’ list. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Produced by Treasure Entertainment. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures (2016) (USA) (theatrical)

Many thanks to the Irish Film and Television Academy  and The Irish Film Board for the preview screening