Ladies in Lavender

(Charles Dance, UK, 2004)


There is a telling poetic touch in the seemingly banal shots that frame the plot: the elderly “ladies in lavender”, Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith), suddenly appear in-frame as the camera scours a beach, and later they will just as swiftly disappear behind a rock.


In this way, writer-director Charles Dance (better known as a distinguished actor) informs us that these characters will only reveal themselves to us within the short space and time of the unfolding narrative. Their past experiences are virtually off-limits, beyond a few glimpsed photographs and spare allusions. Dance rigorously avoids the temptation to indulge in laboured backstory flashbacks or soliloquies.


These Cornish ladies do not give much away, and usually risk even less. But, all the same, their ordered, domestic life starts unravelling once a mysterious Polish stranger, Andrea (Daniel Bruhl), washes up on the beach shore outside their home. Ursula, in particular, is stirred by emotions that she appears to have long denied, and her rapport with Janet becomes fraught with sibling-rivalry tensions.


If anyone actively avoids Ladies in Lavender, assuming it to be another middlebrow, BBC-style costume-weepie, they will be missing out on a modest but highly satisfying film. Dance skilfully interweaves comic elements (especially courtesy of Miriam Margolyes as the housekeeper), and his discreet handling of the intrigue involving another foreign intruder, Olga (Natasha McElhone), is well judged.


With his intimations of a rapidly changing local community and the mood of the wider world in its moment of suspension between wars, Dance gives a poignant aura of melancholia to this often touching piece.

© Adrian Martin March 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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