In "Ladies in Lavender," master pros Maggie Smith and Judi Dench simply do what they do best, without coasting on feel-good stereotypes. Though distribs may have difficulty selling this one to the under-25s, pic is a given seat-filler for upscale, older auds on both sides of the Pond, not only for its surefire cast but as a worthy crowdpleaser.
In “Ladies in Lavender,” master pros Maggie Smith and Judi Dench simply do what they do best, without coasting on feel-good stereotypes. British actor Charles Dance, making his directorial bow, shows an assured hand which foregoes stylistic flourishes for a thesp-centered portrayal of two spinster sisters and the emotions unleashed by the appearance of a foreigner on their patch in rural England. Though distribs may have difficulty selling this one to the under-25s, pic is a given seat-filler for upscale, older auds on both sides of the Pond, not only for its surefire cast but as a worthy crowdpleaser.
Dance moves the period of William J. Locke’s short story from Edwardian times to 1936, thereby taking advantage, in a light-handed but meaningful way, of the residues of WWI and the approaching conflagration of WWII. He’s also parted company with some of the original’s background material, allowing the characters to develop their own lives rather than be hedged in by historical indicators.
In coastal Cornwall, southwest England, sisters Ursula (Dench) and Janet Widdington (Smith) lead the kind of old-fashioned, upper-bourgeois existence beloved by PBS viewers. They’re financially prudent and home-loving folk, comfortable in their quiet village life. Ursula is the dreamy one, still retaining a child’s sense of fun; gently protective, older sis Janet is the practical one. In contrast, housekeeper Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes) has a no-nonsense, working-class wryness.
After a fierce storm, a body washes up in view of the Widdington manse. Miraculously alive and with little more than a broken ankle to show for the ordeal, the mysterious stranger is brought inside by the sisters, who minister to his wounds. His name is Andrea (German star-of-the-moment Daniel Bruhl), a native Pole with a whiff of melancholy and no English. Janet breaks out her old German primer and relishes her ability to communicate with the grateful young man.
Meanwhile, Ursula hovers around Andrea, extra-attentive to his needs and resentful whenever her sister gets to him first. During a small argument, Ursula accuses Janet of insensitivity and, in a perfect example of Smith’s capacity to load meaning into the slightest phrase, she half mumbles “on the contrary.” The three simple words are filled with a depth natural to people who know each other’s secrets, and their own, intimately.
Andrea turns out to be a violin virtuoso, and the sisters borrow an instrument from the village fiddler. Visiting painter Olga Danilof (Natascha McElhone) overhears the luscious sounds coming from the house and loudly shouts her appreciation from the road, but the sisters disapprove of this beautiful, young stranger.
Undiscouraged, Olga writes a letter to the sisters telling them that her brother, world-famous violinist Boris Danilof, would love to hear their talented guest. Her forwardness, combined with her fluent German, prove a threat to the ladies, and they withhold the letter’s contents from their guest.
As Andrea’s mobility increases, Ursula’s solicitous behavior takes on a new sense of contained desperation. It’s here that Dance especially scores as a director: A film that acknowledges the sexual longings of an older woman is uncommon enough, but one that portrays those feelings as something other than improper or sordid is especially rare.
Dench almost wordlessly captures the conflicting feelings welling up inside Ursula. To the accompaniment of the classic WWI tune, “Roses of Picardy,” she fantasizes her younger self locked in an embrace with Andrea.
Dance has an actor’s understanding of how to showcase his cast, and in Dench and Smith he has the perfect models. Dench is perfectly paired with Smith, who’s peerless at impregnating meaning into the most meager of lines, here done with poignancy and warmth. Dance isn’t afraid to hold the camera on a face, trusting in his performers’ physical skills.
Pic is full of delightful moments that throw into high relief the actors’ craft, such as Margolyes’ look of amusement and triumph after flushing the contents of a chamber pot.
Only one performer gets little to work with, and that’s McElhone. Her foreign-flavored accent is a little too unplaceable, and her character, superior and independent with a bit of cock tease, serves mostly to arouse the sisters’ jealousy.
Film delivers a sense of period without overloading on design details, and news of the outside world filters through in snippets heard on the radio. Sole misstep is a late-on flashback that veers into more facile sentimentality.
Golden lensing by Peter Biziou is reinforced by lighting that takes full advantage of Cornwall’s late-summer sun. Composer Nigel Hess does a first-rate job with an orchestral concert that highlights Andrea’s Heifetz-like talent.