Judge Jennifer Malkowski notes that these ladies actually wear more pink and pastel orange than lavender. She demands a refund.
"They saved a stranger from the sea. In return he stole their hearts."
Judi Dench + Maggie Smith + dreamy young violinist + the coast of Cornwall = a movie my mom was dying to see. Despite the overt targeting of the women-over-50 demographic by this British period piece, the stunning combination of Dench and Smith makes Ladies in Lavender a treat for all genders and age groups…Well, maybe not teenage boys.
Facts of the Case
In the idyllic setting of 1930s Cornwall, Janet (Smith) and Ursula (Dench) are two elderly sisters living out their twilight years together. One morning, everything changes when Ursula spots a young man washed up on the beach below their cliffside house. The sisters nurse the German-speaking Andrea (Daniel Brühl) back to health, teach him English, and listen to his beautiful violin playing. Andrea stirs unexpected feelings in them. But their serene existence is threatened when a potential femme fatale (Natascha McElhone) takes an interest in their young companion and when the townspeople become suspicious of his foreign origin.
The highlight, by far, of Ladies in Lavender is the interplay between legendary actresses Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Both are at the top of their game (though when were they not?). In particular, they do an excellent job of giving the two ladies distinct personalities that conflict while maintaining the sense of effortless sisterly closeness. Janet and Ursula may feud and compete for Andrea's attention, but Dench and Smith never let us forget that the two characters have been everything to each other and will continue to be, regardless of how this episode in their long lives together ends. Dench gets the meatier role, playing Ursula like the definitive younger sister (though we never find out which sister is older)—playful, passionate, and impetuous—but Smith holds her own as the even-tempered Janet, whose emotional stirrings hide just a little deeper under the surface than Ursula's. Several supporting cast members also offer some nice performances. McElhone (most people might remember her from The Truman Show, but I remember her beautiful rendering of the young Clarissa Dalloway in the little-known adaptation, Mrs. Dalloway) perfectly combines the sinister seduction and genuine compassion that other characters perceive in her and Miriam Margolyes (who also works with Smith in the Harry Potter series) provides comic relief as Janet's and Ursula's housekeeper.
Brühl's performance is a trickier matter. While he certainly looks the part, the combination of Dance's script and his acting makes Andrea come off as a bit of a brat. A little more like a petulant child than a gracious houseguest, Andrea is not the easiest sell as the one man who could re-ignite passion in the sisters. The other problem with Andrea is that his character only half supports the fairy-tale feeling that the film strives to create. We know nothing of his past, except that he says he is from Poland and he plays the violin, but the story engages fully with his future—where he is going and what he hopes to accomplish. In my mind, the fairy-tale aspect would have resonated more fully if the mysterious man who wandered into the sisters' lives would have remained more mysterious.
At its core, Ladies in Lavender is a subtle story about fairly minor events that take on major significances in the hearts of two elderly women. It's about how loud any sounds can seem in quiet lives and also about how joyous they can be. Unfortunately, director Charles Dance often loses his grip on this effective tone, allowing the film to wander into moments of pretension. His excessive filmic interventions (particularly the instances of slow motion) attempt to highlight significant emotional moments, but end up irritatingly redundant in light of the wonderful acting performances. When Andrea plays the violin for Ursula for the first time, for example, Dance uses slow motion at the end of the performance to capture the impact that it has on Ursula. However, Dench has already conveyed that impact with much more beauty and talent through a simple sustained facial expression, rendering Dance's slow motion a distracting afterthought. He managed to secure some truly wonderful performers for this film, but he doesn't trust either them or the material enough to simply sit back and let things unfold.
Hints of Dance's pretension emerge on the disc's only real extra, a featurette composed of clips from the film and interviews with him, Dench, and Smith. The featurette is short and not too informative or interesting, though we do learn that the script came from a short story by William J. Locke and we hear Dench and Smith discuss their longtime friendship and on-screen (or stage) chemistry.
The technical aspects of the disc are nicely done. The sea, the rocks, and the cliffs of Cornwall all look gorgeous and crisp and the dialogue, music, and other sounds are all clear.
Marred by somewhat pretentious direction and inconsistent scripting, Ladies in Lavender succeeds more as a showcase for the talents of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith than as a romantic fairy tale.
Judge Malkowski rules that Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are free to go. She'll let director Charles Dance off, too, if his leading ladies agree to have tea with her!
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "Ladies in Lavender: A Fairy Tale"
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