Any film in which grande dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench share the screen is one worth seeing, if only to marvel at their deft skills in the art of acting. So, it’s a shame that Ladies in Lavender
isn’t a more worthy vehicle in which to showcase their talents, which – while not entirely wasted – lie fallow for the most part here. Set on the English Cornish coast in 1936, the film’s central characters are two spinsterish sisters, Ursula (Dench) and Janet (Smith), who live an uneventful existence in a rustic cottage high above the rocky seashore. Their cloistered world is disrupted one morning, however, by the appearance of a young Polish man’s barely breathing body on the beach, following a tumultuous storm the night before. In the process of nursing him back to health, the sisters become attached to the boyishly handsome Andrea (Brühl) to the point of possessiveness, both fearing that he might leave their lives as quickly and mysteriously as he entered. For Janet, the emotional attachment is plainly maternal, while the attraction is something more for the never-married (and possibly virginal) Ursula. At the outset, Dance’s screenplay, which is based on a short story by William J. Locke, attempts to instill an element of mystery with respect to whether Andrea’s presence in the small seaside village prior to the outbreak of World War II is mere happenstance or sinisterly motivated. These suspicions grow stronger when he begins to fraternize with a beautiful painter on holiday, whose conversations with him in German rather than his fledgling English cause more than a few stiff upper lips to quiver. (As the visiting landscapist, McElhone hasn’t much to do, but her resemblance at times to a younger Meryl Streep is striking.) But while the film never sufficiently explains in detail how and why Andrea washed ashore, the only real suspense in the film is whether the increasingly obsessed Ursula will make sexual advances to a man at least a third her age. Indeed, the most affecting scene in the film occurs when Ursula breaks down upon being told that Andrea has left for London without saying goodbye. In an instant, your perception of her character as a foolish woman deluded by amorous fantasies changes to one of a lonely woman who has desperately yearned for love her entire life. It’s too bad there aren’t more moments like this in Ladies in Lavender
. Dench and Smith surely deserve them.