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Spinster act

A review of Ladies in Lavender (PG)

Olga (Natascha McElhone) is the official pretty young - thang in Lavender. - TOM COLLINS
  • Tom Collins
  • Olga (Natascha McElhone) is the official pretty young thang in Lavender.

*Ladies in Lavender (PG)
Kimball's Twin Peak

Disclaimer: There are no lavender sundresses or red hats in this film. These ladies are not cute. This is not a Merchant Ivory film or a facsimile thereof.

Ladies in Lavender is a quiet period piece, the kind of indie film that merely tells a good story without showing off. It's populated with interesting characters, quaint but not precious, and it's surprisingly funny, though tinged with sadness.

For his directorial debut, British actor Charles Dance rescued a volume of short stories by obscure author William Locke from a Budapest film set and became entranced with the tale of the Widdington sisters, Janet and Ursula, and a young Polish musician who washes up on the shore below their Cornwall home.

It's 1936. Janet and Ursula, played by grandes dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, are passing their old age quietly, in their father's house. Neither sister has married, though Janet was engaged to a soldier who died in World War I. Ursula has had suitors only in her dreams.

The two pass their days gardening and knitting, their evenings listening to the wireless. Tea figures prominently in their lives, and is served by their bossy housekeeper, played by the inimitable Miriam Margolyes.

One morning, following a violent storm the night before, Janet and Ursula emerge from the house to assess the damage in the garden and catch a glimpse of a body washed up on the beach -- a young man, face down. They fetch the local doctor (David Warner), apparently the only person in the county with an automobile, and take the young man, Andrea (Daniel Brhl), into their guest bedroom.

From here, the story develops around Andrea's extraordinary talent with the violin; a young Russian woman named Olga (Natascha McElhone) who takes an interest in him; Dr. Meade's jealousy; and the sisters' response to having a man around the house.

The landscape is extraordinarily beautiful, but the true vision of this film is Dench. She and Smith have performed together many times in the past, but never so intimately.

Smith's Janet is solid and unshakable, a capable big sister to dreamy Ursula, whose childlike qualities are tenderly portrayed by Dench. She moves like a young girl, her eyes glitter, her skin glows. She retreats into her character with lightness and sure footing.

Dench packs so much emotion into the simplest physical acts -- pulling a curtain back and glancing out a window, curling up in bed, reaching out a hand to touch Andrea's hair --we feel we know Ursula thoroughly, even her most secret thoughts.

An exquisite score, played by violinist Joshua Bell, accompanies the drama. Dance wisely keeps it toned down, avoiding the swells and symphonic sweeps that could coincide with material of this type in a less subtle treatment. The music is present when it fits the scene and never intrudes or overshadows the characters.

Most of all, Ladies in Lavender provides a splendid audience with two of the world's great actors. Smith and Dench play these two down-home women with utter sincerity, playfulness and simplicity. Watching them disappear into their roles, we disappear into the film.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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