FEATURE THE VAN
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When the chips are down
After the upbeat hilarity of The Commitments and The Snapper, The Van is catching ﬁlm audiences off-guard. Director Stephen Frears tells Alan Morrison about the darker side of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy.
ugust, the Edinburgh Film Festival, and director Stephen Frears is back in the city that has dealt him equal hands of good and bad. It was here in Scotland’s capital that a rapturous response to his I985 ﬁlm My Beautiful Laundrette lifted it from the straight- to-television path and secured a cinema release that, in itself, laid the foundations for Channel 4’s involvement in the British ﬁlm industry. More recently, it was on these cobbled streets that Frears ﬁlmed segments of Mary Reilly, a big budget variation on Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, slaughtered by critics and ignored by audiences. This time he’s here for the UK premiere of The Van, the third big screen instalment of Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s ‘Barrytown’ trilogy. Alan Parker’s upbeat take on The Commitments and its infectious R & B soundtrack proved a surprise box ofﬁce hit, while Frears’s ﬁrst foray among Dublin’s working-class communities, The Snapper, crept into the cinemas after breaking viewing records on its original BBC broadcast. The Van is a more difﬁcult proposal. It doesn’t have the marketable music score or party-like ensemble atmosphere of its predecessors. It focuses instead on the mid-life crises of two men, both facing the problems of unemployment and testing their friendship when they go into business together in the fast food trade. You could say it’s a ﬁlm that demands more commitment, while offering less snap. ‘You walk down any of these streets and you see hardship and poverty, but you also see people
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being cheerful,’ says Frears, explaining his approach to the ﬁlm’s tone. ‘That seems to me the norm of life. Underneath all these wacky, zesty comedies there are always rather dark, nasty things going on. The Snapper is a fairy tale; The Van is about real life. Men don’t bond or articulate their feelings, they’re brought up quite the opposite. Men in pubs have to be very, very drunk before they say “I love you” to other men.’
Producer of all three Barrytown ﬁlms, Arbroath-born Lynda Myles agrees. ‘The Van is grim and shouldn’t be sold as a comedy. I think it’s more of a drama — a drama that is funny in
‘When Vlrglnla Bottomley sat In the front row of the [Edinburgh Fllm Festival] screenlng ot The Var,
Ilstenlng to Maggle Thatcher being told to go fuck herself, my heart soared.’
places — but it’s really about a man going mad, in a way, as he faces long-term unemployment.’ Frears shot The Van at the heart of the community that inspired Doyle’s writing, as he did with The Snapper. Being back on familiar ground no doubt gives him a boost of conﬁdence, but he’s still no easy subject as an interviewee, preferring to disagree as a matter of course. Discuss The Van’s universal theme of unemployment, and he’ll stress the ﬁlm’s essential lrishness. Argue that Scots will appreciate the Irish football supporters’ underdog attitude — the ﬁlm is set during the
The vanguard: Donal O’Kelly (left) and Color Money In the screen verslon or Roddy Doyle’s The Van
1990 World Cup — and he’ll say that English euphoria was just the same during Euro 96. Tell him you liked Mary Reilly. . .
‘The truth is, I cannot pretend for one minute it’s a successful ﬁlm,’ he interrupts. ‘The imaginative idea of setting it in Edinburgh was the right idea, but somehow we couldn’t ﬁnally deliver on the narrative.’
So he’ll accept that casting Julia Roberts as the Irish maid was one of Mary Reilly’s problems?
‘Oh, I think she’s wonderful. We asked very little of her. The problems were all with ourselves. In a way, the real story is about the girl having two sides, and we were somehow frightened by that. It was like a story without balls, if you don’t mind me saying.’
Better change the subject, then. My Beautiful Laundrette deﬁned a particular time and mood within Thatcher’s Britain in the 805, but, with the exception of Sammy And Rosie Get Laid, most of Frears’s cinema work has avoided dealing with the nitty-gn'tty of British life. Dangerous Liaisons took him to 18th century France; The Grifters and Accidental Hero to America; The Van is, of course, Irish. Like many of his ﬁlmmaking generation — Scotland’s Bill Forsyth included — there comes a time when the call from the Hollywood studios becomes too loud to ignore. Frears believes the situation at home doesn’t help matters.
‘I ﬁnd it difﬁcult to make ﬁlms about Britain because I can’t ﬁnd material about Britain,’ he states bluntly. ‘I wouldn’t know where to turn to make a ﬁlm about Britain. I’ve somehow got impatient with it, or done too much, or the country’s too small. In Britain, we can’t go on making ﬁlms about defeat. What’s great about Roddy is his ﬁlms are about deﬁance. With My Beautiful Laundrette, people loved the deﬁance. And when Virginia Bottomley sat in the front row of the [Edinburgh Film Festival] screening of The Van, listening to Maggie Thatcher being told to go fuck herself, my heart soared.’
The Van goes on general release on Fri 29 Nov.