The Van

(Stephen Frears, UK, 1996)


There was a vogue in '90s cinema for films about ordinary battlers engaged in either self-employed business ventures or plucky community endeavours. The Van, the third film written by Roddy Doyle in a popular series that began with The Commitments (1991) – and the second to be directed by Stephen Frears, after The Snapper (1993) – tackles the small business option.

Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) spends his retrenchment money on a hideously clapped-out van, and asks his mate Larry (Colm Meaney) to help him in the burger-and-chips trade.

Frears is a very uneven director – partly because he attempts to explore a new mood and style with each new film, rather than reiterate a familiar signature. For The Snapper, one of his best movies, he created a modern variant on the fast, talkative, crowded screwball comedy.

The Van employs a less exciting, more stolid, television-type mode – and when the jokes or bits of character business do not work, the film falls very flat indeed. Eric Clapton's score proves once again that he is a great guitarist, but a mediocre soundtrack composer.

In many respects The Van puts Frears and Doyle squarely in Mike Leigh territory – particularly the Leigh of Life is Sweet (1991). So much of the humour and rough charm of the piece revolves around instances of daily discomfort, humiliation, irritation and plain stupidity. It is a largely sexless world – and, like Leigh's films, The Van is far more interested in its male characters than in any of the luckless, tough women dotting the margins of the story. The overall result is occasionally hilarious in an On the Buses way, but often listless and uninspired.

The Van is also Leigh-like in the way it addresses the problem of survival in a contemporary climate – both economic and spiritual survival. Displaced by the workforce, these characters will try anything to make a go of things, and spark a little cheer in their immediate community of family and friends. The film falls apart, however, when it strains to introduce notes of conflict, tension and drama into this quotidian situation – a problem familiar from Alan Parker's attempts to beef up The Commitments.

MORE Frears: Dirty Pretty Things, Hero, Liam, The Queen, Mary Reilly

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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