Monday 7 December 2009

Ladies in Lavender

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. Loc
ke. 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.


  1. I have never heard of this film and I so love Judi Dench. Popping over to netflix asap. Thanks!

  2. Oh I so want to see this movie. I love everything about it so far.. the setting, the characters, the actors, the storym the acting, the time, the war backdrop, the clothes, the weather - the STORY.. my kind of everything.

  3. I have seen this and you are right -- it is a lovely film. I must admit that before I saw it I thought it might be a bit over sentimental but it is not (or if it is, only in a good way). Two wonderful actresses.

  4. I saw this at the cinema when it was first released and sorry, I have to disagree with you. I didn't enjoy it at all. Having lived in Cornwall for 28 years the really bad accents got on my nerves so much. The only person who mastered a Cornish accent was Miriam Margoyles. And surely the car would have had a Cornish registration and... and...

  5. Oh thank you very much for presenting this film. I've look for the DVD but can't find it :-(

  6. I have to agree, at least in part, with OhSoVintage. Nothing but the scenery is Cornish.But it is a lovely film all the same.

  7. I have seen this film and really liked it. Contrary to what is popular, this is exactly the kind of film I am always looking for. I can't tell you the number of times I have burrowed my way through Netflix to find similar films. And Smith and Dench are two of my favorites.

  8. Isn't it splendid! I so wish that more films were made with such a lovely storyline and gorgeous scenery.

  9. i really liked this movie too. i felt a great similarity to dench's character with my own. not sure if that's a good thing.

  10. I love this sort of genre of film with the ensemble cast of British grand dames. My favourites are 'Mrs Henderson presents' and 'Tea with Mussolini' - haven't seen Ladies in Lavender so shall have to chase it up.

  11. Lovely that so many love this film too, and do go and track it down if you haven't seen it! Whether or not they're faithful to Cornish accents etc. didn't affect my enjoyment of the film (that sort of thing never bothers me) but I can understand why it would spoil it for some.

    Pink Lady Bug - I love both those films too! Judi, of course, being the link...

  12. Simon - I still haven't watched this and heaven knows why as I adore both Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and you have reminded me that I simply MUST get hold of it.

    Have just watched Alan Bennett's talking Heads this week and the Maggie Smith monologue is quite quite superb and incredibly moving. She is such a wonderful actress.

  13. For American readers, the movie Ladies in Lavender will be broadcast on the Encore channel (abbreviated ENCL in my listings) on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 12:30 p.m. EST. The story is available at Google Books in a collection called Far-Away Stories.

  14. I love, love ,love this movie and lo and behold I saw it again with my 19 year old son who was romantic and sweet and beautifully acted and shot!
    I have divoured almost anything those lovely actresses play in!
    Just in case: (not connected)
    Did you see 'Ms.Pettygrew lives for a day'?
    Or 'Ms.Palfrey at the Clairmont'?
    Similarly beautiful movies!


  15. Hi Victoria - yes, I've seen both those films too, and enjoyed them! I'm glad films like these keep getting made, even if they won't ever be huge successes.

    1. A wonderful story and a well-made film.I love Maggie Smith!!!I love her English!

  16. I just watched this lovely movie - recorded it just in case I was up to my knees in dinner prep and that cute guy I married now wants to know "Have you watched this?" I have watched it four times. Love Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith - feel like I know them, somehow. Great film so well done and such great shots of their surroundings inside and out. I have been a voracious reader since I was 4 years old and I will be 70 in November. My world as a young child was living in a Children's Home and there was a huge floor to ceiling bookshelf and could be found sitting on the floor with my back to the tall stacks, reading each and every book there was on the shelves. As a young wife and mom, my whole world could be crashing into the walls of life but I was reading and not a bit involved in the whole chaotic business. Read to my daughters and grandchildren too. Great blog - I am a new fan. Cheers from the west coast of Canada. .....barby


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