'Lavender': Artists in Full Flower

In this photo provided by  Roadside Attractions,  Ursula (Judie Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) Widington  are two sisters that have their peaceable Cornwall existence disrupted in 1936 when they take a young Polish violinist into their care in
In this photo provided by Roadside Attractions, Ursula (Judie Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) Widington are two sisters that have their peaceable Cornwall existence disrupted in 1936 when they take a young Polish violinist into their care in "Ladies in Lavender." (AP Photo/ Roadside Attractions/Tom Collins) (Tom Collins - AP)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

How does Maggie Smith do it? How does she turn the slightest of dialogue, something as inconsequential as "Just as well," and make it fall-down, side-splittingly, laugh-out-loud funny? It's her delivery, of course, her deadpan, skeptical gaze combined with that signature glottal trill, but it's something more. It's Maggie and, at the risk of waxing maudlin for a moment, when she goes, that ineffable Maggie way with a line will lamentably go with her.

So make haste for the closest theater showing "Ladies in Lavender," a funny, civilized little romantic drama in which Smith co-stars with the equally estimable Judi Dench. They play, respectively, Janet and Ursula Widdington, maiden sisters who live in a cozy, well-appointed cottage in Cornwall. After a storm, the two discover something entirely unexpected washed up on their beach: a half-drowned young man (Daniel Bruhl) who speaks no English and only a little German. (It's the fact that he isn't German, by the way, that prompts Smith's character's aforementioned mordant response.)

While the handsome stranger recovers in the sisters' spare room, it emerges that his name is Andrea, he's Polish and he has hidden talents that, as he regains mobility, will inspire passion, jealousy and even suspicion in the sisters' tightly knit little town. A mysterious beauty (played by the impossibly gorgeous Natascha McElhone) keeps turning up, her ease and evident attraction to Andrea unsettling the two proper Widdingtons. Meanwhile, he's put Ursula in something of a swivet, as she ever so discreetly succumbs to long-latent sexual desires and dreams of romance. "Ladies in Lavender" derives its humor from the almost fish-out-of-water story of an outsider at large in a tiny, parochial town, but it's just as effective as a poignant portrait of one woman who has loved and lost, and another who never had a love to lose.

Directed by actor Charles Dance from a short story by William J. Locke, "Ladies in Lavender" is the kind of tasteful literary adaptation that the recently deceased producer Ismail Merchant made so popular. Although it's a showcase for the fabulous Smith and Dench, its appeal extends to supporting performances by great British actors such as Miriam Margolyes (who provides some cheeky comic relief as the Widdingtons' cook) and David Warner. And, like the classic Merchant productions, "Ladies in Lavender" is as much about its setting as it is about its characters; here, the dramatic Cornwall coast and the sisters' perfectly turned out cottage and garden provide as much atmosphere and information about their insular existence as reams of dialogue.

There's an ambiguous quality to "Ladies in Lavender" that adds to its appeal, especially at the beginning, when viewers may not be sure of the two women's relationship, and when the whole story has sort of a timeless quality. The fact that it's very pointedly set between the World Wars is revealed only gradually, and the audience never explicitly finds out just what it was that made Andrea wash up on the sisters' pebbly shore. Dance's comfort with leaving things unsaid is one of his strengths (although he relies a bit too heavily on such directorial mannerisms as gauzy fades of one scene into another and slow-motion effects). And he's clearly able to coax terrific performances, not just from the veterans but from the relative newbies Bruhl (last seen in "Good Bye Lenin!"), who here measures up inch for inch against his accomplished elders.

For its warmth and humor, a light pall of melancholy hangs over "Ladies in Lavender" as it becomes less a mystery about Andrea's provenance and motives and more an allegory about lost youth. Whiffs of "Death in Venice" suffuse a tale that, in the end, is about how the aged reach out to youth, not in a spirit of generosity or teaching, but in order to steal some of their magic. There's something oddly comforting -- and fittingly British -- about a movie that, although it ends happily, leaves you feeling just a little bit sad. It's the Cornish drizzle, after all, that makes its sunshine all the more dazzling.

Ladies in Lavender (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company