Ladies in Lavendar
directed by Charles Dance
(Sony, 2005)

Somewhere along the Cornish coast lies an English fishing village where the residents' average age is 102. There dwell two Ladies in Lavender, Ursula (Judi Dench), a spinster, and her sister, Janet (Maggie Smith), a widow. Together they take walks along the beach, listen to weather reports on the wireless and live carefully but comfortably on the money left to them by their father and an aunt.

It's unlikely they ever would have become the focus of a major motion picture, had it not been for the unexpected arrival of a young Polish man named Andrea (Daniel Bruhl), who washes up on the beach near their house one night during an unusually dangerous storm. At first they think he might be dead, but when they discover he's only unconscious, they take him in and nurse him back to health. And therein lies a tale.

Ladies in Lavender is the directorial debut of Charles Dance, a 59-year-old actor who's appeared in just about every British TV show and movie made since 1975, including 2003's Swimming Pool. But in Lavender he's given himself three roles: he also wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by William J. Locke, and was executive producer.

In all three roles Dance performs admirably, spinning a detailed yarn that makes much of what could be very little. There isn't a lot happening in Ursula and Janet's village before Andrea appears. Old people take walks; not-quite-so-old people fish or gather grain. The men bowl at the pub, and once a year the townsfolk gather for a harvest fest, complete with music from local farmers and fishermen.

Andrea's arrival changes all that in fairly short order.

First, his presence causes friction between the sisters, who get caught up in an "I seen 'im foist" battle worthy of the best Popeye cartoons -- though, in truth, both of them are way too old to be Andrea's mother. So the two grand dames who for years have gone to bed at the same time -- in separate beds, of course -- suddenly find themselves picking at one another in minute but hurtful ways.

This "picking disease" soon spreads through the village, as Andrea -- who, it turns out, is a rather talented violin player -- attracts the attentions of local Russian expatriate artist Olga Deniloff (Natascha McElhone), who also finds herself attracted to him.

Unfortunately, Olga has herself attracted the attentions of the local physician, Dr. Mead (David Warner), who is closer in age to Ursula than Olga, making it an unrequited love at best. Add to this the fact that Andrea and Olga communicate in the only language they have in common -- German -- and that the events just described take place on the eve of World War II, and you have the makings of a potentially deadly tempest in a teapot.

Before long, Dr. Mead, who has helped nurse Andrea back to health, presses the sisters to report Andrea's presence to the authorities and, when he doesn't get a quick-enough response, sends in the local police to investigate.

Dance milks this ripple effect for all it's worth, capturing the small-town side of it with unusual insight. When Ursula devises the incredibly clever method of teaching Andrea the English names of things by tacking notes on them, for example, Janet can only complain that all she's really accomplishing is putting holes in the furniture.

Part of what makes Lavender work so well is Dance's attention to detail. Witness the scene in which the sisters decide to start up the family car so they can drive to town and buy Andrea a suit. Many directors would be tempted to cut to the clothing store. Dance lingers in the garage, where the sisters turn starting the car -- with a hand crank, no less -- into yet another skirmish in their ongoing war.

Just as important is the fact that Dance has cast two actresses, Dench and Smith, who could bring all these small moments of insight to the film both lovingly and sublimely. No matter how unbelievable the situation, never are you tempted not to believe Dench or Smith.

Sadly, however, Dance cannot maintain this motif for all the film's 104 minutes.

At some points, all tales of tension great and small must come to an end, and Dance's ending is a rather unsatisfying one. Given all we're set up for, we expect to be tossed off a cliff; instead, we simply tumble down a Cornish hillside.

On top of that, Dance resorts to a series of camera tricks -- front to rear focus shifts, for example -- and a clever double dissolve to keep our interest in the final scenes. But camera tricks are not what Lavender is about. Lavender is a tale of repressed sexuality and of sexuality that ought to be repressed. It's a strikingly original film that deserves a strikingly original ending.

Nice try, Dance. Now please, try again.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

6 September 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new