2 stars (out of 4)
When you defy narrative logic, you betray not only your audience but your characters as wellno matter how lovely and sympathetic they may be.
In this case, thespian royals Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play such a pair: Ursula and Janet Widdington, two purple-loving elderly sisters who, on the cusp of World War II, discover a young man washed ashore near their oceanside village of Cornwall.
"Ladies in Lavender" exemplifies that kind of polite, underdramatic "Masterpiece Theatre" staging that can either provide a surgical examination of English society or bore the pants off you. "Ladies in Lavender" does a bit of both, although not for lack of conflict.
While helping nurse young Andrea (Daniel Bruhl) back to health, the Widdington sisters begin to piece together his story: He speaks Polish and German, hates Janet's piano-thumping and displays a virtuoso's talent on the violin.
Strangely though, no attempt is madeby Andrea or the sistersto contact his family or loved ones, which erodes the film's dramatic credibility some. Even though Cornwall appears remote, it's not so alien a landscape that people behave counter to social convention. Director Charles Dance makes little attempt to reconcile the gaping plot hole, though if he had, we might be more inclined to be caught up in his thematic preoccupations, such as the bubbling undercurrent of jealousy between the sisters.
A widow since World War I, Janet (Smith) has more worldly experience than Ursula (Dench), who never married and is the more childlike of the pair. When it becomes clear that Ursula's preoccupation with Andrea isn't motherly but instead intensely romantic, Janet is beside herself.
"How can you be so naïve?" Janet asks, pointing out the age difference.
"How can I be anything but?" says teary-eyed Ursula.
Each sister carefully guards Andrea against Olga (Natascha McElhone), a vacationing German-speaking young woman who offers Andrea an introduction to her brother (by incrediblechance, a famous musician). Director Dance's momentum fades soon after Andrea's ankle mends, and we're left with a vague back story involving Andrea's intent to emigrate to America, though the mystery of how he ended up in Cornwall is never revisited nor revealed.
Andrea becomes sort of a blank character, a personality on whom we can impose our own curiosity and emotions, much asUrsula does. As compelling and original as this theme is, it's not enough to keep our attention, no matter how lovely the ladies in lavender are.
"Ladies in Lavender"Written and directed by Charles Dance; based on the short story by William J. Locke; cinematography by Peter Biziou; production design by Caroline Amies; music by Nigel Hess; edited by Michael Parker; produced by Nicolas Brown, Elizabeth Karlsen and Nik Powell. A Roadside Attractions release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, Renaissance Place and Century Cine Arts in Evanston. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language).
Ursula Widdington - Judi Dench
Janet Widdington - Maggie Smith
Olga Daniloff - Natascha McElhone
Andrea Marowski - Daniel Bruhl
Dorcas - Miriam Margolyes
Dr. Francis Mead - David Warner