- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

“Ladies in Lavender” is a wistful tear-jerker about elderly sisters residing “in retirement” in a secluded cottage on the Cornwall seacoast in the late 1930s. The film’s title notwithstanding, co-stars Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench first appear in matched flowered prints of a rusty hue, which contrasts very effectively with the slate of outcroppings along their seashore.

The lives of Miss Smith’s Janet, a widow, and Miss Dench’s Ursula, a spinster, are supposedly stimulated to a smoldering range when an apparent shipwreck survivor washes up on their beach. Carried to a spare bedroom and examined by the village doctor (David Warner), this stranger must recover from a broken ankle. He is identified as a young Pole, Andrea Markowski (Daniel Bruehl of the German movie “Goodbye, Lenin”), fluent in Polish and German. Janet has some familiarity with the latter, and Ursula hastens English aptitude by pinning helpful labels on all the objects in the bedroom.

Andrea makes a leisurely recovery while World War II lurks somewhere on the horizon. Other than the revelation that the ladies are protecting a violin prodigy, few details about Andrea’s background are provided, not even an adequate explanation of how he came to be a man overboard on a dark and stormy night.

The period setting is attractively mounted by director Charles Dance and his scenic collaborators, but the heartbreaking manipulations prove mighty feeble. Ursula nurses a major crush while playing mother hen for Andrea; both sisters must weather an emotional sucker punch when he is hustled off to London for a triumphant concert debut by a temptress named Olga, a watercolorist residing near their cottage. Natascha McElhone is decoratively hilarious as this invasive glamour puss.

The movie is spared a fatal descent into ill-conceived heartbreak by the expertise of three actresses: the titled co-stars and Miriam Margolyes as a redoubtable cook and housekeeper named Dorcas. Some performers acquire so much experience, finesse and credit over time that it’s a pleasure to share their company even in fragile vehicles like this one.

Miss Margoyles is the welcome scene-stealer. As an image of domestic know-how and snappiness, she’s as much fun as Thelma Ritter used to be in similar roles in the 1950s.

Mr. Dance might have helped out by paying a bit more attention to the math of his time frame and principal characters. We’re led to believe that Janet must have been a young widow in the Great War. But since Maggie Smith and Judi Dench turned 70 in December, the Janet of 1914 would have been a 40-ish bride by the most generous estimates.

“Ladies in Lavender” would certainly have profited from enhanced characterization, local color and psychological insight, but it will suffice as a minor showcase for accomplished professionals who elude embarrassment.

**

TITLE: “Ladies in Lavender”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting ominous elements, sexual allusions and vulgarity.

CREDITS: Written and directed by Charles Dance. Cinematography by Peter Biziou. Production design by Caroline Amies. Music by Nigel Hess. Violin solo performed by Joshua Bell. Costume design by Barbara Kidd.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: www.ladiesinlavenderthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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