September 19, 2005 -- “Ladies in Lavender” is a movie for anglophiles, fans of Merchant-Ivory films and the like. It is a film filled with wonderful music and magnificent, subtle acting. The story, however, goes nowhere at a glacial pace.
You would be hard pressed to find two actresses better than Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Both are Academy Award® winners and are both national treasures who have earned their titles. Both are given plenty of room to shine in this star vehicle about two spinsters who rescue a young man, Andrea (Daniel Brühl of “Good Bye Lenin”) from the sea only to find out he is a master of the violin. Dench, who plays Ursula Widdington, falls in love with the handsome young man, even though she is old enough to be his grandmother. Her sister, Janet (Smith), disapproves of her sister's behavior, but tries her best to support her. The two fuss over the young man and try to keep him in their picturesque home in Cornwall long past the time he has recovered from his broken ankle. The conflict in the story is between Andrea's need to get on with his life and Ursula's need to stop fantasizing and to let him go.
A highlight of the film is the award-winning musical score by Nigel Hess and the brilliant violin solos of Joshua Bell. Another highlight is the acting by Dames Dench and Smith, along with Brühl and Miriam Margolyes of “Being Julia,” who plays the Widdington's acerbic housekeeper, Dorcas. The plain-spoken housekeeper lends a much-needed grounding of reality and humor to the film. Margolyes is both gruff and tender, both shrewdly observant and blissfully unaware of all the goings on in the Widdington house by the sea. Another key character is the mysterious Olga, played by the ethereal beauty Natascha McElhone of “Solaris.” Veteran actor David Warner of “Planet of the Apes” plays Dr. Mead, the nearest thing to a villain in the film. The film also features gorgeous scenery along the coast of Cornwall.
The story creeps along very slowly. Not much happens in the movie, but it takes a long time to develop, just the same. The settings are limited enough that it could easily be made into a stage play. Most of the story takes place in the house, the back yard or at the local pub. The story and the music are all about the emotions. It is a film with an emotional punch. It is weakened somewhat by its limited dramatic conflict and by some weak subplots. There is potential for additional drama with the backdrop of the conflict in Europe in the 1930s and Andrea's status as a Polish refugee, but those plot points are left undeveloped. In fact, the reason Andrea washed up on the Cornish coast is a mystery. This film rates a C+.
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