Imagine. A cottage on the coast line of Cornwall. The 1930s. A couple of sisters. A boy. A story of unrequited love and some fiddling. That, ladies and ladies, is the faintly empty but gently-gentle story of Charles Dance‘s directorial debut: Ladies in Lavender.
The sisters, wonderfully, are Maggie Smith (Janet) and Judi Dench (Ursula). The one is a spiky widow, the other a calm, tentative old virgin. Their cook – spectacularly – is Miriam Margolyes as Dorcas. Which is Cornish for full-on-character-actor. Into this bittersweet, but happy home come next to no plot points. They hustle, they bustle, they garden and…nope, that’s pretty much it. Then, in the arms of a storm, the seas throw up a boy. I’ve still got no idea why – the gentle lollop of the film may have knocked it out of my head – but it doesn’t really matter. What is important is that a youth, bedraggled and weak, ends up in their spare bedroom.
There is no sex in this film. Get that point now. It is all about yearnings and age-gaps. For, as the sisters tend young Andrea back to health, with the help of frowny old David Warner as Doctor Mead, much inner sadness is revealed. Andrea is Polish, lost, and with a broken ankle. While Janet looks on with arched eyebrow and an air of judgement, Ursula teaches him to speak English. It takes a while, but they get there, only to reveal a boy with a boy’s brain: simple and a bit flat. But in the dark of the night, Ursula starts to pine, looking to stroke Andrea’s hair as he sleeps.
And, nope, it’s not creepy. Maggie Smith keeps her domineering in check, while Judi Dench grabs at your heart with a soft, defeated performance that is thoroughly affecting. Daniel Brühl as Andrea isn’t really allowed to be anything but a blank emotional canvas, filled with the need for some sort of plot. For he is a master violinist, hugely skilled and easily surpassing the village fiddler, Adam Penruddocke (Clive Russell controlling the comedy-bullishness).
But pain is due. Also in the village is Olga Danilhoff, a painter, played by the Natascha McElhone, who must be tired of hearing she’s redefined beautiful single-handed (and not the way you may think). Ursula knows she will never have her love requited as the boy leans into Olga’s world, much as the less sympathetic Doctor Neal knows Olga will never let him through her door for all he hangs about outside. Stalking or unrequited posing? You choose. Dench and Warner are both guilty…
The older woman wanting the younger man – somehow about love not lust. The older man wanting the younger woman – about lust not love. Old Jack here was struck by how unfairly and how sexistly we judge the admirers. Had Warner’s Doctor Neal crept into Olga’s room to stroke her hair in the small hours, we’d think okay of her for knifing him in the throat. It is wholly to Dench’s credit – and her remarkably gentle performance – that the reverse makes you protective of her folly, not angry at her presumption. Hmmm – who’d be old and a bit in love with the new cleaner, eh?
In the end, the selfishness of youth takes Andrea off to a world at odds with Cornwall by the sea. But the boy has gratitude and grace, which seems like a reward for the effort the sisters put into getting him going. It is accepted by Ursula – she has no choice – but unrequited means unloved. And for all the charm of an older woman wanting a young man, uncommon in film, it’s brutal. There’s a moment of sobbing that makes you want to rush into the cottage for quality hugs.
Ladies in Lavender is a film in need of a bit more energy, and a more layered characterisation for Andrea. But it gives good British-Movie and deserves prizes for Smith, Dench and Margolyes (old Jack can’t stuff chickens after seeing her at work). The lack of change in the sisters’ lives, however, makes its place in the memory a slight one.