Compelling Leading 'Ladies'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

THERE'S A QUIET, steady grace to "Ladies in Lavender," a story about the relationship between a pair of lonely, elderly sisters and the young man who washes up on the shore of their Cornish village, that prevents the film from ever becoming too sentimental or weepy. Mostly, it's due to two amazing actresses who anchor the film's bittersweet emotional narrative of loss and longing, grounding it in such recognizably human behavior that it feels, at times, less like a melodrama than a documentary.

Written and directed by actor Charles Dance ("Gosford Park") after a short story by William J. Locke, and set in the period leading up to World War II, "Ladies" stars Maggie Smith and Judi Dench as sisters Janet and Ursula. One is a widow, the other a spinster, and when they discover an injured Pole named Andrea (Daniel Bruhl) one morning lying unconscious on their rocky beach and decide to nurse him back to health in their spare bedroom, strange, long-dormant feelings -- part maternal, part romantic and complicated by long-standing jealousies and a possessiveness bordering on the proprietary -- start welling up in them. It's easy territory to muck up with sloppy histrionics, but under Dance's sure hand, and the even surer performances of Smith and Dench, who know that underplaying an emotion often increases its punch, the film is a small study in the dignity of letting go.

Although much of the film's tension arises from a kind of simmering competition between Janet and Ursula for the attention and the affections of Andrea -- each wants, in a way, to "claim" him -- things really start to get interesting when their handsome young charge meets a beautiful woman closer to his age in the village. Like Andrea, who speaks no English, yet who is able to understand the sisters' broken German, the woman, Olga (Natascha McElhone), is an outsider, a foreigner on holiday in Cornwall to improve her painting skills. When Olga and Andrea bond over their shared love of art and music -- Andrea, it seems, is a talented violinist and Olga's brother is a famous musician who can do much to advance Andrea's career -- Janet and Ursula grow mistrustful of the interloper, and of Andrea's growing ambitions.

"She's like the witch in a fairy tale," one sister says to the other, but what they don't realize -- at least not yet -- is that, like a fairy tale, things can't go on the way they were. "Ladies in Lavender" is too real for such nonsense, and Dance's understanding of how letdown is a part of life informs this film and his characters' struggle to accept what will not be. There is one great scene, when Ursula just weeps, almost wordlessly, after Andrea's presence has reminded her of the kind of physical love she will never know.

It's an achingly beautiful moment, and it sets the tone for "Ladies in Lavender," a movie that is all about the march of time. "She were a cracker 40 year ago," observes one of the local codgers, speaking in the Cornish vernacular about Janet and Ursula's now overweight and blotchy housekeeper, Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes).

Weren't we all once, the movie seems to ask, weren't we all?

LADIES IN LAVENDER (PG-13, 104 minutes) -- Contains brief crude language. In English, German, Polish and French with some subtitles. Area theaters.

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