"Ladies in Lavender" is an unfortunate title for this charming period film, because it's guaranteed to scare off anyone who associates that phrase with the herbal sachets that little old ladies are notorious for putting into their drawers and closets.
The principles in this film are, in fact, two elderly sisters who live together in a remote house on the coast of Cornwall, but screenwriter and first-time director Charles Dance ("Gosford Park," "Swimming Pool") may have made his best decision when he cast two Oscar winners to play the leads. Every move and every facial gesture by Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love") and Maggie Smith ("The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "California Suite") are worth watching, because they add as much texture to the film as the location footage of the small towns and coastlines in southwest England. Their expressions are maps to be read, and as corny as it sounds, their eyes are mirrors to more souls than their own.
Based on a short story by William J. Locke which I have not read, "Ladies in Lavender" calls to mind another short story—a magical realist tale by Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which a drowned man washes ashore and immediately has an effect on the village because of how incredibly handsome he is, even in death.
There's a similar effect produced when a young man washes ashore just below the women's house. Neighbors are summoned to help with the transport, and the village doctor is called to tend to the man in the sisters' upstairs guest room. It turns out that among his injuries is a broken ankle, which confines him to that little room for a long period of time. If they were younger, it would almost be scandalous to cohabitate for so long with so handsome a stranger. But as writer Gertrude Stein once remarked, "We are all the same age inside," and Ursula (Dench) finds herself deeply attracted to the young man—as infatuated as a schoolgirl—though reason tells her, as she looks in the mirror or struggles to rise from the ground upon her thick legs, that she is an old woman and old women have no business thinking such thoughts.
Janet (Smith) notices and, of course, is quick to question and scold. But in different ways, the women compete for the lad's attentions. Janet can communicate with him in German and holds his mirror for him while he shaves and cuts his hair, while Ursula, driven to connect with him, puts the name of every object in the room on a slip of paper and proceeds to teach young Andrea (Daniel Brühl) English. And both women go to town to arrange for the local fiddler to play, when their guest cannot stand Janet's piano playing and covers his reaction by saying he prefers violin music.
That's when life gets complicated. Andrea's playing attracts a vacationing Russian woman (Natascha McElhone), whom Ursula instantly suspects as a rival. But like a pebble dropped in water, his playing expands until it entrances the entire village. It's bad enough that the women have to share this gregarious young man with the people in the village, but incomprehensibly worse to imagine that he might fall for this woman and leave them. "She frightens me," Ursula says. "She's like the witch in a fairy tale."
This film is full of surprises. It's surprising that such a slight plot can hold our interest, and when moments of laugh-out-loud humor come (Miriam Margolyes, who, like Smith, is another Hogwarts faculty member, is particularly hilarious), it's as surprising as when Andrea first washed up on shore. The concert-quality music is perhaps the best surprise. Renowned violinist Joshua Bell handles the solo performances for the film, including folk favorites and compositions by Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolo Paganini, Claude DeBussy, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Pablo de Sarasate. Orchestral performances are provided by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The soundtrack is available on CD.
It apparently takes a village to make a project like this. Pop in the DVD and you get Roadside Attractions and Lake Shore International logos followed by "UK Film Council and Baker Street present, in association with Future Films and Paradigm Hyde Films, a Take Partnerships production of a Scala Productions film." Whatever it takes to bring films like this to audiences, we can be grateful.
Video: "Ladies in Lavender" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the picture quality is excellent. The exterior scenes of the village and coast, the insides of pubs and houses are clear and sharp no matter what the light level.
Audio: The soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 5.1, which superbly captures the folk and classical violin performances—especially those elusive high notes, and those moments when the violinist eases a note gradually into nothingness. Subtitles are in English.
Extras: The lone extra is a good one—a "making-of" featurette on "Ladies in Lavender: A Fairy Tale" in which behind-the-scenes stills augment talking heads interviews with Dench, Smith, and Dance. Like the film itself, there's a quiet weight to the things that are said, with Dench remarking that "I'm notorious for not reading scripts" and coming onboard simply when a director like Dance approaches her, pitches the concept, and tells her she can do it. And Smith? Good friends with Dench, she was onboard the minute she learned who her co-star would be. As to why Cornwall, we learn that partly it's the remoteness and isolation, but mostly it was the quality of light. "It's shimmering," Dance says. And certainly the location filming contributes greatly to the quiet magic of this understated film.
Bottom Line: In all respects, "Ladies in Lavender" is a modest little film that does everything well that it attempts. As Dench remarks, "it's like a fairy tale—a strand of something" rather than a fully-formed narrative with backstory, character arcs, and complex plotlines. If it suffers, it does so in the same way as perfect dives and skating routines in the Olympics that don't include a high degree of difficulty. But like the stranger, a gift of the sea, who affected an entire village in a magical way, "Ladies in Lavender" is a wonderful surprise for those who encounter it.