I spent an enjoyable evening re-watching Ladies in Lavender, a 2004 film starring the indisputably wonderful Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. I first watched this when it came out (of course I did, with those ladies at the helm) and I’ve watched it once or twice since, but never did it captivate me so wholly as tonight. And so I’ve been spurred on to write about it – encouraging you to watch or re-watch it.
The film, the directorial debut of Charles Dance, is based on a 1916 short story by William J. Locke. The setting is moved to the mid-1930s, though, which gives the poignancy which is there in everything which takes place on the brink of war. Ladies in Lavender is set in Cornwall, and the ladies in question are elderly sisters – a widow and a spinster – living together quietly, affectionately, and uneventfully. Until one day, while checking the garden for storm damage, they spot a washed up body on the beach. Upon checking, it turns out that the body is alive – and is an unconscious Polish man, Andrea, who is later discovered to be a very talented violinist. The sisters Ursula (Dench) and Janet (Smith) nurse him back to health, and the film watches the repercussions on all of their lives – especially Ursula’s.
Ladies in Lavender rests upon the extraordinary talents of Judi and Maggie, of course, and well they might. Ursula is a kind, naive, easily distressed old lady who has never experienced the peaks and troughs of life. Janet, a little more world-weary, cares intensely for her sister, but has a no-nonsense view on life. She tries to protect Ursula from getting too involved with Andrea’s recovery, aware of the hurt she will suffer, but is helpless. I can’t begin to describe how these women act as sublimely as they do – if you’ve seen them in anything, you’ll know what I mean. The screenplay (also Dance’s) is so subtle, so sparse – each scene is realised through the inflections in their voices, and their expressions, movements, touches. Alongside this pathos, comedy is provided by Miriam Margolyes as the sisters’ cook Dorcas, who is as perfect as always at defusing well-mannered, softly-spoken scenes with lines in the vein of ‘Nothing I haven’t seen before’…
The term ‘beautifully shot’ always sounds pretentious, but I can think of no other for Ladies in Lavender. Even if the story weren’t touching, the film would be worth watching on mute – some reviews seem to think this was overkill, but I don’t think a film should avoid being beautiful. And this one really is beautiful – both in the dramatic views of the sea and scenery, and detailed domestic shots.
I should mention the other principal players, who are wonderful too – Daniel Bruhl spends quite a lot of the film without dialogue, since the character only gradually learns English, and so must put everything into his body language – and he does it brilliantly. Also, I don’t know if he can play the violin well (it is actually played by Joshua Bell, who also released the soundtrack) but, if not, he acts it extremely convincingly (I was fooled, and I play the violin). And then there is Natascha McElhone, whom I have loved ever since The Truman Show.
This isn’t the sort of film which proves very popular in the mainstream, and nor is it edgy or brittle enough to appeal to the indie market, so it probably isn’t regarded as a classic in many circles. But I think it is the most subtle and beautiful of films, desperately and quietly moving, with extraordinary actors, making mild, everyday characters so important and vital. One I’ll watch many times.