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Many Japanese have dreamed of living their last days in London, just as Americans in the 1920s used to dream of romantically passing away in Paris. Now, as Japan grows grayer with each passing year, an increasing number of older Japanese are eyeing Great Britain’s capital city with a particular longing.

It’s been said by culture critics and emigrants that you can live in England on just ¥2 million a year and still enjoy soccer games or sit down to afternoon tea in cashmere sweaters — because British society is kinder and more respectful of seniors than Japan’s.

Frankly, I’m ready to believe that after seeing “The Lady in the Van,” which features 81-year-old Dame Maggie Smith as a homeless curmudgeon who smells god-awful and lives out of a van in a nice, residential area of Camden.

The Lady in the Van (Miss Shepherd o Otehon ni)
Rating
Run Time 104 mins
Language English
Opens Dec. 10

Most of the story is true to life and Smith’s character is based on Margaret Fairchild, who died in 1989 after 15 solid years of parking her van in a stranger’s driveway. During those years, she went by the name of “Miss Shepherd” and, despite her cantankerous behavior, was somewhat of a local celebrity.

In the movie, people bring Miss Shepherd gifts at Christmas and she is made welcome at the local church, even though every time she uses the confessional booth the person after her needs a blast of room freshener or a gas mask. Nothing perturbs the unrepentant and seemingly ungrateful Miss Shepherd, who, it seems, is very adept at finding ways to look after herself at other people’s expense.

Originally written for the stage by Oscar-nominated writer and playwright Alan Bennett, “The Lady in the Van” has seen Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd before. In 1999 she performed in Nicholas Hytner’s stage production, and later she voiced the role in a radio adaptation. Bennett, who is played by Alex Jennings, is this film’s other centerpiece, as it was in his driveway that Miss Shepherd parked her van for 15 years. After Fairchild passed away, he wrote the play, the radio piece and now this movie. Working again with Hytner (they also collaborated on “The Madness of King George”), he pays a full-on screen tribute to the bag lady who turned out to be his greatest muse.

Jennings as Bennett, sporting Elton John glasses and mannerisms to match, reveals a beating heart of gold beneath a bookish artiness. At least he has a soft spot when old ladies are concerned. He just can’t seem to say no to “old dears,” particularly his sweet, lovable mum, who loses her grip on reality and eventually ends up in a nursing home.

Bennett’s subsequent guilt over his mother compels him to make uneasy friends with Miss Shepherd, who shows no signs of tenderness whatsoever but provides plenty of indirect opportunities for Bennett’s need to atone. He finds himself running her errands, lifting things for her and eventually offering her his driveway space, which she proceeds to litter with her own feces. Miss Shepherd is definitely no Paddington Bear.

Smith is splendid here — her whole demeanor is testament to the resilience and toughness of a woman determined to survive, be it through old age or nuclear disaster. Along with compatriot Dame Judi Dench, she makes aging seem, if not a bed of roses, then decidedly less dismal and boring than we’ve been led to believe. What’s the secret? Besides being great actresses, they have taken on roles that suggest the trick is being your own person and doing your own thing.

So perhaps we should start early and practice the art of not giving a damn what other people think. Then one day, we, too, can respond to young, rude whippersnappers with acerbic zingers. And when we want something done for us, we could pull out Miss Shepherd’s go-to-line of “I’m sick. … I could even be dying!” with a regal air. The Japanese title couldn’t have said it better — the translation is: “Let’s Make Miss Shepherd a Role Model.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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