"Ladies in Lavender" is as quaint as its title promises, but the movie -- the directorial debut of actor Charles Dance -- is redeemed by the exquisitely calibrated performances of its two stars. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play Ursula and Janet, two sisters aging gracefully by the sea until a gathering storm (it's 1936; think World War II) washes a strapping young foreigner onto their gorgeous strip of rocky Cornwall coastline.
Ursula is utterly undone by this twist of fate, and Dench is mesmerizing as this long-sheltered woman who succumbs to an impossible, irrational love, while Smith (whose character is more worldly) puckers and frets impeccably by her side.
Maggie Smith, left, and Judi Dench are in their element as genteel sisters.
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"I'm the one who saw him first," Ursula says in one of her rare blunt grabs for Andrea (Daniel Bruehl), the handsome young Pole recuperating in the sisters' spare bedroom. Ursula -- in her seventies, mind you -- knows she ought to tamp this unseemly girlishness down, but she just can't, and Dench conveys Ursula's fragile state with stricken looks and gestures that hesitate mid-flight. It's as if Ursula were the one who washed up in a foreign land.
Smith, who has no peer when it comes to prim disdain, teams beautifully with Dench as they etch in the details of the sisters' lifelong relationship. In fact, Dance gets full-bodied performances all around from a cast that includes Miriam Margoyles as the sisters' cheeky housekeeper and the lustrous Natascha McElhone as a Russian artist who looks like great news for Andrea.
Dance indulges a weakness for sappy slo-mo at the tenderest moments, which is the last thing this sentimental fable needs, but his screenplay (from a William J. Locke short story) gets the odd surprising laugh, especially in the brief subtitles required by international characters whose common language is often German. You don't get the sense that a great directing career is being launched, but Dance certainly knows enough to create a solid, genteel English movie rife with muffled suffering and acted to the nines.
Ladies in Lavender (103 minutes; rated PG-13 for brief strong language) will be shown Sunday at 4 p.m. at Regal Cinemas Gallery Place.