Friday, February 23, 2007

When Andrea, a handsome young Polish-Jewish violinist, is washed ashore in a close-knit Cornish community in 1936, spinster sisters Ursula and Janet Widdington (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) take him under their wing and the stage is set for jealous rivalries, dark political paranoia and ultimately crushing heartbreak. There is nothing like a Dame? Try two of them - acting each other off the screen in Charles Dance's phenomenally acted, exquisitely scored, and ultimately moving Ladies In Lavender.

Given the cast and crew, this could have been the luvvie-fest to end them all; unbearably sentimental, hopelessly parochial and utterly self-indulgent. The fact that actor-turned-debut director Dance has produced a film of this calibre is nothing less than a minor modern miracle of British Cinema, not to mention a testament to the continued greatness of its leading Dames. Based on a short story by William J Lock (and "liberated" from a Budapest set-dressing room by an entranced Dance), the film conjures up a by-gone age and its residents so perfectly you find yourself rooting for the most unlikely of characters, their relationships and their all-too-human foibles throughout.

It’s an unusual kind of love story, and one that acknowledges love is as cruel and horribly unfair as it is kind and selfless. As the lovesick Ursula, Dench is a marvel as the living embodiment of the Yeats' line, 'tread softly, because you tread on her dreams'. Smith meanwhile - as laconic and bitter-sweet as ever (this actress seems to speak entirely in italics) - provides her perfect foil, as their protégé (Brühl) slips further away.

The closing shot, in which Ursula finally relinquishes her love for Andrea through the transcendent power of his music is actually worth the admission price alone. Ladies In Lavender holds you in a gentle but compelling grip till the finish.

Here’s an odd wisp of heritage drama, adapted from a story by William J Locke and directed by journeyman actor Dance. He presents a formidable grande-dame pair – Judi Dench and Maggie Smith – as symbiotic sisters living out their twilight years in 1936 Cornwall, where handsome shipwreck

victim Daniel Brühl (‘Good Bye Lenin!’) washes ashore one unassuming day. While the mysterious young man, who doesn’t speak a word of English, heals up in their spare bedroom, sensible sis Janet (Smith) attempts communicating with him in German, flightier Ursula (Dench) develops a secret but fiery crush on him, and out-of-towner Natascha McElhone whisks the lad away to nurture his soon-evident violin-playing talent. It’s all as postcard-pretty, pleasantly dull, and wholly inconsequential as it may sound; Dance tiptoes around Ursula’s suppressed desires so nervously that her character remains frustratingly oblique, though the redoubtable team of Dench and Smith have a prickly but affectionate rapport that feels decades lived-in.

With that title and those two grand dames in the lead roles, you think this'll be an annoyingly quaint British film about two old scene-chewers. But superb characters, excellent performances and a nicely understated filmmaking style combine to make it thoroughly satisfying and engaging.
Ursula and Janet Widdington (Dench and Smith) are aging sisters enjoying their isolated life in 1930s Cornwall, but their idyll is jolted when a young man (Bruhl) is washed ashore near their home. While nursing him back to health, the ladies discover an affinity for young Andrea, a gifted Polish violinist on his way to America. But the village isn't used to visitors, and everyone's a bundle of suspicions, repressions and jealousies. Especially when Andrea develops a friendship with a visiting painter (McElhone).

Cute without being precious, moving without being sentimental, this delicately balanced film really gets under our skin with characters who are never remotely simplistic. The soulful Ursula's growing crush on this young man is beautifully played by Dench. Smith brings a very different level of clinginess to the more proper Janet. And Bruhl's offhanded, charming rawness is reminiscent of Ewan McGregor. Around this trio, Margolyes has an eye-rolling ball as the ladies' irritable housekeeper, Warner is a bundle of conflicting emotions as the helpful-hopeful-vengeful local doctor, and McElhone is a lovely, floaty alien presence. Thankfully, not a single character goes where you expect them to.

This is such an accomplished film that it's a surprise to find it written and directed by a first-timer: the actor Charles Dance. He draws out layers of humour and warmth then balances them with bitter doses of resentment and mistrust. Character interaction is often almost subliminal; these sisters have clearly lived together too long, yet they never boil over into hysterical movie-type behaviour (although they come close!). Similarly, the plot has a terrific sense of growing dread that never erupts into a contrived climax. Meanwhile, Dance establishes the gorgeous setting and period in lyrical ways that never prettify anything. It's a film about the dangers of either rejecting or grasping too tightly to whatever's new and unexplained. So very, very English.

Ladies in Lavender is the writing and directing debut of actor Charles Dance. It was recently chosen as the Royal Command Performance film and one can well imagine that it went down a storm with that particular audience; in fact, they should probably just go ahead and add the tag-line, “A Film You Should Take Your Mother To See”, as that’s exactly what it is. As such, it’s an enjoyable, undemanding period film with terrific performances from a grand old pair of Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

Based On The Short Story

Based on a short story by William J. Locke, the film is set in a tight-knit Cornish fishing village in 1936. Smith and Dench play Janet and Ursula Widdington, two elderly spinster sisters whose lives are changed when a handsome Polish castaway named Andrea (Daniel Bruhl, from Goodbye Lenin) washes up on the beach below their house.

The two women take Andrea in and nurse him back to health but Ursula develops something of a crush on him, which embarrasses her more straight-laced sister. Later, the two women are delighted to discover that Andrea is a gifted violin player; however, his musical prowess also brings him to the attention of a visiting Russian artist named Olga (Natascha McElhone), whose interest threatens to take Andrea away from the sisters.

Judi Dench is wonderful as Ursula; her facial expressions are simply heart-breaking and the scene where she breaks down in tears is guaranteed to have a similar effect on the audience. Bruhl is also excellent, giving a sweet, sensitive performance and coming across like a sort of German Tobey Maguire.

Maggie Smith plays what you might call ‘The Maggie Smith Role’ (sharp, sarcastic, haughty) and of course there’s no-one better at The Maggie Smith Role than Maggie Smith. As a result she gets all the best lines and most of the laughs, for example, her comment on Ursula teaching Andrea English by labelling the objects in his room (“HE might be learning English, YOU are making holes in the furniture”) or her put-down of McElhone: “I know it’s not very Christian of me, but I dislike that woman intensely.” (“Is she German?”, Dench asks. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised…” comes the reply).

The only real weak note is Natascha McElhone. Why on earth do directors insist on casting her in roles where she has a foreign accent? Is it because she’s so rubbish at acting in her own accent? (Well, yes, it probably is). At any rate, she ends up speaking English, German and even French here, so it’s like some sort of McElhone bad accent bonanza.

Luckily, there’s much better support from the likes of David Warner (as the jealous doctor), Clive Russell (as a fiddle-playing local) and Miriam Margolyes as Dorcas The Comedy House-keeper, who would have stolen the show, if Maggie Smith hadn’t beaten her to it.

Dance handles his material well and makes excellent use of his locations as well as creating convincing period detail. The main problem, then, is that not all that much really happens – it’s somewhat disappointing that McElhone doesn’t turn out to be a Nazi spy, for example, despite her avid sketching of estuaries and watchtowers.

That said, Ladies in Lavender is an enjoyable, quietly moving film that’s definitely worth seeing for its performances.

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