Now showing at Odeon Andover Anton Mill Road,Andover,Hampshire SP10 2RW 0871 224 4007
- Black Mass
- Bridge Of Spies
- Irrational Man
- No Escape
- The Good Dinosaur
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2
- The Lady In The Van
Black Mass 3 stars
FBI agent John Connolly returns home to South Boston and joins the local force under the command of Charles McGuire. When the Angiulo Brothers, who are connected to the New England Mafia, declare war on the Winter Hill Gang, Connolly contacts gang leader Whitey Bulger in secret and persuades the kingpin to turn police informant. Whitey provides intelligence on the Mafia and the FBI acts upon it to bring down this powerful syndicate.
- GenreAdaptation, Drama, Historical/Period, Thriller
- CastBenedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon.
- DirectorScott Cooper.
- WriterMark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth.
- Duration123 mins
- Official sitewww.blackmassthemovie.com
Crime might pay for Johnny Depp who bids for a fourth Oscar nomination with a tour-de-force portrayal of real-life mobster James "Whitey" Bulger in Scott Cooper's stylish and sporadically bloody crime thriller. It's a genuinely chilling performance of brooding menace and the chameleonic actor immerses himself in the role, replete with coloured contact lenses, rapidly receding hairline and paunch. Strip away Depp's theatrics and Black Mass is a handsomely crafted, if overly familiar, tale of crime and punishment that faintly echoes Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning drama The Departed. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth's script is unbalanced, relishing scenes of Whitey terrorising his victims while shortchanging arguably the most interesting relationship in the film: Whitey and his brother Billy. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with the Bulgers in South Boston and returns to the area in 1975 as an FBI agent under Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon). The city is under the control of the Winter Hill Gang led by Whitey (Depp), right-hand thug Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), hitman Johnny Martorano (W Earl Brown) and heavy Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). Perversely, Whitey's brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) wields legitimate power as a Massachusetts state senator. When gangland rivals, the Angiulo Brothers, who are connected to the New England Mafia, declare war on the Winter Hill Gang, Connolly secretly contacts Whitey to persuade the kingpin to turn informant. "It ain't rattin', it's an alliance!" the FBI agent assures his childhood pal. Whitey provides intelligence on the Mafia and the cops act upon the insider information to bring down the powerful syndicate. This covert alliance is tested to breaking point when Whitey murders a duplicitous accomplice in broad daylight. FBI agents John Morris (David Harbour), Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) and Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) question the value of the pact. Blood is thicker than common sense and John approaches Billy to defuse an explosive situation. "I'm not asking you to help me. I'm asking you to help your brother," pleads the cop. "That's the same thing now, isn't it?" retorts the savvy politician. Adapted from a non-fiction book penned by journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Black Mass skims over some of the meatier detail to cut back and forth between Whitey's rise to power and John's inexorable fall from grace. Edgerton pales next to Depp and Cumberbatch has limited screen time to add flesh to the bare bones of his suited power broker. In the film's most unsettling scene, Whitey takes the temperature of John's disapproving wife (Julianne Nicholson), who is pretending to be ill, before forcefully squeezing her throat to check if her glands are swollen. She chokes, her eyes water and Whitey visibly savours every skin-crawling, nerve-shredding second of his dominance.
Bridge Of Spies 4 stars
Rudolf Abel is arrested in 1957 New York and labelled a Soviet spy. Legal maven Thomas Watters Jr enlists one of his best insurance lawyers, James B Donovan, to mount a credible defence for the sake of appearances even though the odds are stacked against a fair trial. Sure enough, Abel is convicted, but then a US pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down over the Soviet Union. Consequently, Donovan travels to Berlin to broker a covert deal to exchange Abel for Powers.
- GenreAdaptation, Drama, Historical/Period, Thriller
- CastAlan Alda, Austin Stowell, Tom Hanks, Billy Magnussen, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance.
- DirectorSteven Spielberg.
- WriterMatt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
- Duration141 mins
- Official sitewww.bridgeofspies.com
Director Steven Spielberg reunites with actor Tom Hanks for an incredible true story of courage and daring that proves one man can make a difference. Scripted by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Bridge Of Spies is an espionage thriller that pits a mild-mannered insurance lawyer against the bureaucratic might of the USSR and Germany during the Cold War. Spielberg's fingerprints are evident on each assured set-piece and he elicits another compelling performance from Hanks as an underdog and everyman, whose innate decency inspires everyone around him. However, British co-star Mark Rylance lingers even longer in the memory as the convicted Soviet collaborator, who confronts the harsh reality of his situation with droll humour. Their scenes together are truly wonderful. Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is arrested in 1957 New York and labelled a Soviet spy. Legal maven Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda) enlists one of his best lawyers, James B Donovan (Hanks), to mount a credible defence for the sake of appearances even though the odds are stacked against a fair trial. The presiding judge (Dakin Matthews) makes clear his expectations of Abel's fate: "He'll receive a capable defence and God willing, he'll be convicted." Donovan's wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and three children, Carol (Eve Hewson), Peggy (Jillian Lebling) and Roger (Noah Schnapp), cannot fathom why the family man would represent a traitor to the American way of life. Sure enough, Abel is convicted, but then a US pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down over the Soviet Union. Consequently, Donovan travels to Berlin to broker a covert deal to exchange Abel for Powers. Against the advice of superiors, Donovan also opens negotiations with the Stasi for the safe return of an American economics student called Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who has been arrested. Playing east against west, Donovan prays for a miracle as snow falls on the divided city. Bridge Of Spies is a slow-burning tale of intrigue and bluff that takes its time establishing Donovan as the potential saviour of not one but three lives. Hanks injects natural warmth and likability to his character, a hate figure to fellow Americans, who viewed everything in black and white. In considerably less screen time, Rylance endears us to his prisoner, who is painfully aware of his chances of survival. "I'm not afraid to die, Mr Donovan," he tells his lawyer, "although it would not be my first choice." As you would expect from Oscar-winning filmmaker Spielberg, who explored the horrors of war in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, Bridge Of Spies illuminates tensions between east and west with boundless style. Every scene is artfully composed by cinematographer by Janusz Kaminski, every swell of emotion is heightened by composer Thomas Newman.
Irrational Man 3 stars
Anguished philosophy professor Abe Lucas arrives at the New England college campus of Braylin in the midst of an existential crisis. Sitting in a diner one afternoon with his student Jill, Abe overhears a tearful conversation in an adjacent booth about an unfeeling judge, who is needlessly wrenching apart happy families. Abe is enraged and resolves to reinvigorate his humdrum existence by taking the life of Judge Spangler.
- GenreDrama, Film, Romance
- CastEmma Stone, Parker Posey, Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Blackley.
- DirectorWoody Allen.
- WriterWoody Allen.
- Duration95 mins
- Official site
In front of and behind the camera, writer, director and actor Woody Allen has lovingly cultivated the persona of a neurotic, insecure, anxious and self-absorbed voyeur of the frail human condition. His pithy one-liners are quoted endlessly, and the controversies which have stained Allen's personal relationships do not seem to have markedly tempered affection for his dialogue-heavy work.
In Irrational Man, the film-maker returns to dramatic canon after the froth and frippery of yesteryear's Magic in the Moonlight, reuniting with leading lady Emma Stone for a spry tale of trial, retribution and murder most torrid. It's a rematch made in mediocrity because for all its crisp verbal acrobatics and occasional flourishes, this modern day mystery lacks a killer instinct.
Lead characters are sketched lightly and we struggle to tether a strong emotional bond to any of the players as they pontificate on the morality of doling out justice to the wicked and corrupt.
"I took direct action and eliminated a cancer," argues the film's unlikely executioner as motive for his heinous actions. Some actions have horrific and unforeseen consequences.
Anguished philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at the New England college campus of Braylin in the midst of an existential crisis. Fellow members of staff expect Abe to inject "some Viagra into the philosophy department" and ruffle faculty feathers.
Abe's disenchantment with his life of teaching and political activism percolates in rambling lessons to wide-eyed students. "If you learn nothing else from me, you should learn that philosophy is verbal masturbation," he informs his class plainly.
At this low ebb, Abe casually welcomes the amorous overtures of fellow professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), whose marriage to her husband Paul (Robert Petkoff) has stagnated. He also intoxicates perky student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), to the chagrin of her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley).
Sitting in a diner one afternoon, Abe and Jill overhear a tearful conversation in an adjacent booth about an unfeeling judge, who is needlessly wrenching apart happy families. Abe is enraged and resolves to reinvigorate his humdrum existence by taking the life of Judge Spangler (Tom Kemp).
Committing the perfect murder should be simple for a celebrated man of learning; eluding the long arm of the law might be somewhat trickier.
Irrational Man explores Allen's lifelong fascination with philosophy. Characters wrestle tirelessly with questions of free will, destiny and humanity, which might get the writer-director's juices flowing, but hardly sets our pulses racing.
Sporting an impressive belly for the role, Phoenix wallows in his character's ennui and struggles to generate enough sparks of on-screen chemistry with Stone to convince us that she would fall for his morose academic. Plotting is linear and Allen makes clear his feelings on personal vengeance in the film's disappointing and telegraphed final reckoning.
Showtimes (Click time to book tickets)
- Thursday 3rd December 2015
No Escape 2 stars
Texan businessman Jack Dwyer uproots his wife Annie and daughters Lucy and Beeze to take up a job in Southeast Asia. The assassination of the country's president sparks an uprising and Jack witnesses firsthand the brutality of the mob. He sprints back to the hotel and rounds up Annie and the children just as locals begin beheading foreigners in the street and storming the reception. Staff stand by as international guests are slaughtered in their rooms.
- GenreAction, Romance, Thriller
- CastOwen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan.
- DirectorJohn Erick Dowdle.
- WriterDrew Dowdle, John Erick Dowdle.
- Duration103 mins
- Official sitewww.facebook.com/NoEscapeUK
East meets west and, as usual, America emerges as the culturally and morally superior force in John Erick Dowdle's taut thriller set in Southeast Asia. No Escape was shot on location in Thailand but director Dowdle and his younger brother Drew, who co-wrote the script, remain vague about the geography of this violent, protracted chase set during a bloodthirsty coup.
A climactic sequence set on a river, which supposedly meanders across the Vietnamese border, would logically infer Laos or Cambodia as the backdrop to the wanton carnage. Neither nation would want to be connected to the rampant xenophobia on display here so the Dowdles dodge specifics, including the political motivations of their stereotypical characters, and focus instead on propulsive action sequences.
The opening 30 minutes are particularly nerve-racking, cranking up the suspense as a beleaguered American family plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with a machete-wielding rabble in a besieged hotel.
All of that sweat-drenched tension evaporates when flimsy threads of realism are slashed in hysterical fashion to engineer a series of hilariously improbable events that defy logic and the laws of physics.
Texan businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) uproots his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) to take up a job in far-flung climes. The welcome from some locals is lukewarm, so while Annie and the girls settle into the hotel suite, Jack seeks solace in the bar and attempts to justify his company's presence to fellow traveller Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) and other patrons.
The assassination of the country's president sparks an uprising and Jack witnesses firsthand the brutality of the mob. He sprints back to the hotel and rounds up Annie and the children just as locals begin beheading foreigners in the street and storming the reception. Staff stand by as international guests are slaughtered in their rooms.
"All we got to do is put 10 steps between us and them," Jack tells his terrified family, shepherding them at speed through the mounting devastation, bound for the US embassy. The odds are stacked against the Dwyers and no one, it seems, can be trusted.
No Escape is punctuated by moments of jaw-dropping incredulity, including Brosnan's broad cock-er-nee accent. Wilson and Bell are an appealing on-screen couple and they wring droplets of sympathy for their stricken parents especially when little Beeze shows scant concern for everyone's safety by constantly complaining that she is hungry, wants her teddy or needs the toilet when silence would be golden.
Dowdle orchestrates the fast-paced set pieces with a modicum of flair, stampeding any half-hearted attempts at cultural sensitivity under the feet of his nameless revolutionaries, who intend to repel western capitalism with barbarism and brute force.
Showtimes (Click time to book tickets)
- Thursday 3rd December 2015
Spectre 3 stars
The newly appointed M, Gareth Mallory, battles with political forces to protect the integrity of MI6. A cryptic message reveals ghosts from Bond's past and 007 realises he must protect Dr Madeleine Swann, daughter of fugitive Mr White, in order to unravel the mystery. Aided by MI6 technical wizard Q, Bond criss-crosses the globe in his Aston Martin DB10 and discovers that a menacing organisation named SPECTRE, fronted by the diabolical Franz Oberhauser, is behind the global threat.
- GenreAction, Adventure, Romance, Thriller
- CastDaniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Lea Seydoux, Andrew Scott, Dave Bautista, Naomie Harris.
- DirectorSam Mendes.
- WriterNeal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, Jez Butterworth.
- Duration148 mins
- Official sitewww.007.com
Daniel Craig's licence to kill as Ian Fleming's suave secret agent comes full circle in Spectre, a robust yet emotionally underpowered tale of espionage and dark family secrets that ends with a series of whimpers rather than an almighty bang.
If Skyfall popped a cork on a muscular new era for 007, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in the UK, then Spectre is the morning after, when the champagne has gone flat, leftover snacks are starting to go stale and someone has fallen asleep face down on the sofa.
That could be any of the four screenwriters, who doze off after the tour-de-force opening sequence at a Mexican day of the dead parade, and allow plot holes and lapses in logic to pock their narrative.
How can Bond travel around the globe unseen when he has nanobots in his bloodstream so MI6 and the enemy can track his movements? Would a brilliant operative like Q really whip out his laptop on public transport and conduct vital forensic analysis without a second thought for security protocols?
Death sequences are anti-climaxes and the central love story, which is supposed to kindle doubts in Bond's mind about his loyalty to Queen and country, barely smoulders, let alone melts celluloid.
The newly appointed M, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), battles with political forces, including Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), to protect the integrity of MI6 following a merger with MI5.
A cryptic message reveals ghosts from Bond's past and 007 (Craig) follows a chain of evidence that leads to Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), daughter of fugitive Mr White (Jesper Christensen), who was last seen in Quantum Of Solace.
Aided by technical wizard Q (Ben Whishaw) and plucky agent Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond criss-crosses the globe in his Aston Martin DB10 and infiltrates a menacing organisation named SPECTRE, fronted by the enigmatic Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
Rome, Tokyo, Altaussee in Austria, Tangier and London provide a picturesque backdrop to Bond's escapades as he meets his physical match in hulking henchman Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista).
Spectre was always going to struggle to meet expectations, but it's disappointing how far short this 24th big screen mission falls. At 148 minutes, the film overstays its welcome and a number of key scenes overrun, particularly the introduction of Waltz's shadowy archvillain.
Action set pieces, apart from the glorious opening salvo, lack power, sacrificing slam-bang thrills for ponderous exposition. Craig struts and swaggers through the melee, bedding beauties who seemingly self-combust with a single glance. He also endures a wince-inducing torture sequence that warrants the film's 12A certificate.
Dame Judi Dench's absence is palpable but Fiennes and Whishaw are gifted expanded roles and come into their own, while Harris is surplus to requirements. When one of the characters rebukes Bond's recklessness and tells the agent he has gone too far, nothing could be further from the truth. Spectre doesn't go far enough.
The Good Dinosaur 4 stars
Prehistoric beasts thrive including a family of Apatosaurus comprising patriarch Henry, his wife Ida and three children Buck, Libby and Arlo. A tragic accident robs the siblings of their father and soon after, Arlo falls into a river and is swept far away from his loved ones. Lost in the wilderness, Arlo meets a feral cave boy called Spot, who becomes the dinosaur's protector. Beast and human child embark on a magical adventure to return Arlo to his home in the shadow of the Clawed-Tooth Mountains.
- GenreAdventure, Animation/Cartoon, Children, Children's, Comedy
- CastFrances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright.
- DirectorPeter Sohn.
- WriterMeg LeFauve.
- Duration101 mins
- Official site
Four instalments of monster mashing in Jurassic Park have taught us to be thankful that an asteroid supposedly impacted Earth around 66 million years ago and wiped out the various prehistoric predators. Pixar Animation Studios begs to differ. Director Peter Sohn and his animation wizards conjure an alternate version of events: the ill-fated asteroid bypassed our third rock from the sun, allowing Tyrannosaurus Rex and other hulking beasts to thrive. Consequently, the evolutionary food chain is reversed: dinosaurs learn to talk, build homes, raise dysfunctional families and expand their horizons while humans are an untamed species that roams the wilderness on all fours and communicates in crude howls and growls. It's a cute concept that provides a solid foundation for Sohn's life-affirming tale of friendship and loyalty, inverting the touching central relationship of How To Train Your Dragon with similarly teary-eyed results. At the heart of the film is a family of Apatosaurus comprising patriarch Henry (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), his wife Ida (Frances McDormand) and three children Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla) and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). They own a farm and work hard to harvest crops for the bitter winter months. "You got to earn your mark by doing something big for something bigger than yourself," Henry teaches his offspring. A tragic accident robs the siblings of their father and soon after, Arlo tumbles into a raging river and is swept far away from his loved ones. Lost in the wilderness, Arlo meets a feral cave boy called Spot (Jack Bright), who becomes the dinosaur's protector. Beast and human embark on a magical adventure of self-discovery, bound for Arlo's home in the shadow of the Clawed-Tooth Mountains. En route, they fall foul of villainous Velociprators and a scavenging Pterodactyl called Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), and befriend a Tyrannosaurus herder called Butch (Sam Elliott) and his rootin' tootin' children Ramsey (Anna Paquin) and Nash (AJ Buckley). After the heartbreak, hilarity and narrative sophistication of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur is a step backwards for Pixar. The plot is formulaic and predictable, and the finale is drizzled in emotional syrup. While the script lacks daring and invention, the visuals are truly jaw-dropping and push the boundaries of photo-realistic animation on the big screen. Gentle humour is concentrated in the opening hour, before the obligatory harsh life lessons including one pivotal scene in which Arlo and Spot communicate their loss and loneliness through actions rather than words. The pay-off is an emotional gut punch that has become the studio's trademark. The Good Dinosaur screens with the charming short Sanjay's Super Team directed by Sanjay Patel in which a young Indian boy daydreams about three Hindu gods becoming superheroes.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2 4 stars
Katniss Everdeen recovers after her bruising encounter with brainwashed Hunger Games competitor Peeta. President Snow is preparing for the rebels' assault on the Capitol and has planted pods as booby traps around the evacuated city to annihilate invaders before they can reach his mansion stronghold. Katniss, Peeta and other allies venture behind enemy lines to launch a covert strike on Snow and bring about lasting peace. However, the casualties of war are high.
- GenreAction, Adaptation, Adventure, Drama, Family, Romance, Science Fiction
- CastJennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, Jeffrey Wright, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci.
- DirectorFrancis Lawrence.
- WriterDanny Strong, Peter Craig.
- Duration137 mins
- Official sitewww.thehungergames.co.uk
At a critical juncture in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, Woody Harrelson's grizzled mentor Haymitch Abernathy pays tribute to his battle-scarred protegee, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). "I'll say this Katniss, you don't disappoint," he beams. Similar praise could almost be lavished on the concluding chapter of the dystopian saga, based on the novels by Suzanne Collins. This bruising battle royale remains faithful to the books and largely justifies the decision to cleave the final salvo in two a la Harry Potter and Twilight. A nail-biting subterranean set piece, pitting the rebels against a horde of snarling creatures called mutts, is a thing of terrifying beauty reminiscent of Ellen Ripley's hellish encounters with aliens. And Danny Strong and Peter Craig's muscular script doesn't shy away from the moral conundrum of conflict for a generation, whose childhood innocence has been stained with blood. "It's war. Sometimes killing isn't personal," suggests one teenager, trying to make sense of the carnage. If Mockingjay - Part 1 dragged its feet, trading glancing verbal blows between Katniss and Machiavellian warmonger President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the concluding salvo lands one devastating blow after another as simmering animosity ignites full-blown slaughter. Without any fanfare, Part 2 opens on Katniss' anguished face as she recovers from a skirmish with brainwashed Hunger Games competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The unified Districts are preparing for an assault on the Capitol and Katniss must lead the charge, guided by District 13's crusading President, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and lovestruck childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Intelligence reveals that President Snow has planted booby traps known as pods around the ruined city in order to annihilate the rebels before they reach his fortified mansion. Katniss, Peeta, Gale and other valiant allies including Hunger Games victor Finnick (Sam Claflin) venture behind enemy lines to launch a covert strike on Snow. "He needs to see my eyes when I kill him," snarls Katniss. However, casualties are high and the gung-ho heroine must watch as the people she loves, including her plucky sister Primrose (Willow Shields), risk everything in the name of liberty. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 is a fitting and relentlessly grim conclusion, distinguished by breathless action sequences that recall the first film back in 2012, before leading lady Lawrence became an Oscar-winning powerhouse. She delivers another emotionally wrought and beautifully measured performance, torn between Hutcherson and Hemsworth's rival suitors for Katniss' hardened heart. Director Francis Lawrence signs off in downbeat style but does make a couple of notable missteps. The most gut-wrenching death in the book is an anti-climax on screen and a wistful yet melancholic coda might have been axed entirely by a braver filmmaker.
The Lady In The Van 3 stars
Playwright Alan Bennett moves into a house in Camden and is befriended by well-to-do neighbours. Soon after, a cantankerous vagrant called Miss Shepherd bullies Alan into letting her take up temporary residence in his driveway. Months turn into years and the playwright despairs as he becomes Miss Shepherd's guardian and suffers regular visits from interfering social services worker Miss Briscoe.
- GenreAdaptation, Comedy, Drama
- CastDame Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent.
- DirectorNicholas Hytner.
- WriterAlan Bennett.
- Duration104 mins
- Official site
Teasingly billed as "a mostly true story", The Lady In The Van is an entertaining screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's award-winning 1999 play, based on his experiences of a sharp-tongued vagrant called Miss Shepherd, who camped outside his driveway for more than 15 years.
The playwright has lovingly adapted his stage work, employing the same cute theatrical device of the real Alan and an internal self, who endlessly pontificate on the tramp's shady past as they mooch about a north London home.
"Writing is talking to oneself and I've been doing it all of my life," quips the real Alan to neatly explain the duelling on-screen narrators, both played with warmth and wit by Alex Jennings.
Dame Maggie Smith reprises her eye-catching stage role as the eponymous and fragrant tramp, unleashing an array of withering putdowns that would surely have her imperious Dowager in Downton Abbey clucking with approval. It's a tour-de-force performance from the national treasure, tinged with pathos and regret, which reminds us that Smith is a gifted physician comedian as well as a twinkly-eyed sniper with a sardonic one-liner.
Alan (Jennings) moves into a house in Camden and is befriended by well-to-do neighbours including opera fans Rufus (Roger Allam) and Pauline (Deborah Findlay), who live opposite, and statuesque Ursula Vaughan Williams (Frances de la Tour).
Soon after, a cantankerous woman called Miss Shepherd (Smith) settles in their street in her ramshackle vehicle and bullies Alan into pushing her transport, when it refuses to start during a downpour. "You wouldn't see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street!" Alan berates himself.
When council bureaucracy threatens the old woman's future, the playwright foolishly agrees to let her take up temporary residence on his driveway for a few weeks. Months turn into years and the playwright despairs as he becomes Miss Shepherd's guardian and suffers regular visits from interfering social services worker Miss Briscoe (Cecilia Noble).
When a police officer called Underwood (Jim Broadbent) begins to harass the old woman late at night, Alan speculates about her former life. Meanwhile, Miss Shepherd seeks forgiveness for unspoken sins in the confessional of the local priest (Dermot Crowley). "Absolution is not like a bus pass," the holy man tenderly proclaims. "It does not run out."
The Lady In The Van is an amusing and heart-warming tonic for these cold winter months. Director Nicholas Hytner, who helmed the Olivier Award-nominated stage production, reunites with his leading lady with obvious relish.
He also includes cameos for most of the cast of The History Boys, his last collaboration with Bennett, including James Corden as a market trader, whose cheeky banter fails to curry favour with Miss Shepherd. Supporting characters are sketched lightly in comparison, but all observe Smith's virtuoso performance with admiration.