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Photograph by Tom Collins

Dames at Seashore: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench play a pair of Cornish sisters who adopt a shipwrecked fiddler in 'Ladies in Lavender.'


Judi Dench and Maggie Smith go ga-ga over a castaway in rustic period piece 'Ladies in Lavender'

By Michael S. Gant

APPARENTLY, director/writer Charles Dance either never saw Cold Comfort Farm or didn't get the joke. Dance's Ladies in Lavender takes a ramble through a remote village in Cornwall, reveling in the local eccentrics as if they were so many caricatures on parade. The jolly fisherpeople toss eels about like footballs. The town cretin bugs his eyes out. A love-struck lout promises (but does not, alas, deliver) a whipping to the outsider who flirts with the town tart. Various red-faced, white-bearded old tosspots cavort merrily, pints in fists. A no-nonsense scullery maid prepares a bit o' fish pie with the heads and tails sticking out of the crust. Everyone has really bad English teeth when they smile. Instead of recoiling in horror at the sight of so much encrusted rusticity, Dance acts like a chirpy travel guide. I suspect that Dance (who had a memorable part as Ripley's one love interest in the Alien series, as the prison-planet doctor in Alien³) thinks of Ladies in Lavender as a nostalgic postcard from a better—or at least simpler—era.

Certainly, the distinguished leads deserve better, although they don't get it. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play Ursula and Janet Widdington, a pair of sisters who live in a cottage by the sea. Janet's husband perished in the Big One; Ursula is, we are led to believe, a permanent spinster. One day, a young man (Daniel Bruhl) washes up on the shore, a survivor from some never-explained shipwreck. The sisters tend for this boyish invalid, eliciting a few tidbits about his past: his name is Andrea, he's Polish, he speaks German and he plays the violin like an angel. Andrea's fresh-faced innocence evokes feelings that are a little more than motherly from Ursula, who starts obsessively combing her long white hair and sneaking a caress or two. (She practically goes Bette Davis baby-doll-fondling nuts, but Dance doesn't have the wit to follow through on the suggestion.)

Meanwhile, a Bohemian painter named Olga Danilof (Natascha McElhone, currently trying to pump some life into her Christ-child-hunting partner Bill Pullman on TV's Revelations miniseries) overhears Andrea's sweet sounds and seduces him (in a dreadful Russian accent) with the promise of an audition in front of her brother, a world-famous musician. She is what passes for a witch in this sort-of fairy tale, although the story lacks the grit of a real fable. In an embarrassing subplot, the town's doctor (David Warner) fails in a pass at Olga and spends the rest of the movie acting like a stalker.

Indeed, for all the undercurrents whirling around the village, the film ultimately goes nowhere. Dance updated (and padded out) his source, a short story by William J. Locke, moving the action from the early 1900s to 1936, in order to add some frisson about the impending war (there is a faint suspicion that Andrea could be a spy), and raising the ages of the sisters by more than 20 years, which makes Ursula's burgeoning desires farfetched rather than a wistful last chance at love. Certainly, the scenery, furnishings and grand-dame acting will appeal to The Whales of August crowd, but Ladies in Lavender is no more nourishing than that fish-head pie.

Ladies in Lavender (Unrated; 104 min.), directed and written by Charles Dance, based on the short story by William J. Locke, photographed by Peter Biziou and starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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