Ladies in Lavender
Written and Directed by Charles Dance
Adapted from a short story by William J. Locke

It is hard to believe that this skillfully-written, adeptly-crafted film is the feature debut as writer and director of accomplished British actor Charles Dance. The story is told with deliberation and composure, trusting to the screenplay to provide the actors with what they need, and to the actors to make that into something an audience will find compelling. Such daring confidence in script and cast bespeaks a mastery rarely found in a novice director (and in very few veterans), no matter what his or her background.

The film is adapted from a short story by William J. Locke, a writer born in the 1860s who died in 1930. His stories and novels - more than 20 of them - were adapted for the screen (most of them as silents) until a few years after his death. This is the first screen adaptation of his work since 1936. It is a "comeback film" he could be proud of.

Dance here adds strength to the argument that the best adaptive vehicle for film is the short story rather than the novel. The condensed, intense form of the short story is best suited to the sensory intensity and brief time-frame of the average 90-120 minute film. Dance's careful screenplay is thoughtful and thrifty, without unnecessary dialogue, and a like well-written short story it adheres closely to its point and doesn't burden itself with unnecessary detail or rhetorical flourishes. Every word (and in the film, every shot) moves the story along, tells us something interesting or raises an intriguing question about the characters and their actions.

The story concerns two spinster sisters, living out their old age in a lovely cottage they have inherited from their family on the Cornish coast of Great Britain in the period between the First and Second World Wars. They are "minor gentry," well enough off to be objects of respect in the neighborhood and to be able to enjoy a comfortable household with a cook/housekeeper. They putter in their garden (to spectacular effect), listen to the wireless, knit and read. They lead a peaceful and contented - if rather circumscribed - life.

The elder sister, Janet (Maggie Smith) is the more worldly of the pair. She is the beauty of the family, with her bright blue eyes and her good cheek bones. She has had a relationship with a man - who chose to "do his duty" in the Great War and unfortunately never returned. After the loss of that love, she apparently stayed within the family fold. She is the more assertive of the pair and the more "practical," but her affection and respect for her sister is a cornerstone of her being.

The younger sister, Ursula (Judi Dench) is the more innocent and naive. She is the plain, pudgy sister who stayed at home with her parents, taking care of her father until his death. She harbors - deeply repressed - a romantic, passionate nature that has never found expression in the real world, and an admiring envy of her sister's experience and self-possession. But she is far from a caricature of the ditzy-dreamer. Along with her imaginative, yearning spirit she is endowed with a powerful current of self-respect and a courageous honesty.

Into their lives comes a handsome young man, Andreas (Daniel Brühl) who washes up one day, nearly dead and with a broken ankle, on the rough shingle before their cottage. As they nurse him back to health, they discover that he is Polish and that he is a talented violin virtuoso. His origin is a mystery (and remains so), but his effect on the lives of the two women is profound.

He awakens memories of the girls they once were, forces them to examine the women they have become, disturbs the comfortable routines they have established and the assumptions by which they have decided to live. He brings romance, youth and vitality - as well as stirrings of jealousy and regret - into their sheltered lives, not so much by his actions, as by what he evokes in them from their own inner lives. All this is communicated mostly by implication, with a minimum of exposition. The audience is left to "come to know" the characters from clues offered here and there in asides or references and through their actions, body language and gesture.

Intruding into this menage á trois (or á quatre if you count the sisters' housekeeper Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes) who is a full member of the household) comes the young and beautiful Olga Danilov (Natascha McElhone), a bohemian artist working on her water-color skills along the Cornish seaside - who just happens to be the sister of established violin super-star Boris Danilov.

The tender, delicate unfolding of the emotions Andreas awakens in the sisters, his own sensitivity and response to the authenticity and simplicity of their complex affection for him, and the way the world intrudes on and eventually insists on "resolving" this irresolvable situation forms the emotional core of the film. As realized by writer/director Dance and as incarnated by some fine actors, well-directed, this simple, rather mundane story where nothing much happens takes on a transcendent beauty.

As I indicated above, credit has to go to Dance for his writing. He is an experienced actor with more than 60 films on his resume in his thirty-year career including Hilary and Jackie, Swimming Pool and Gosford Park. He understands the actor's need for space to develop a character beyond "action" and "dialogue." He goes out of his way to create that space, with a faith in his actors ability to use it well that few directors can comfortably express.

And the actors repay that faith with performances that light up the screen. It doesn't hurt, of course, that he has chosen Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as his leads - two women who are among the greatest actors currently working, who between them could undoubtedly harness the power of the dramatic Typhoon, if they wanted to.

But in this film, reinforced no doubt by Dance's sure directorial hand (they have both worked with him as actors in previous films) they know that no scenery-chewing is required - that they are working with a director who respects their gifts and instincts and simply wants the best they have to give. He gets it.

It would be hard to say enough about Judi Dench's performance here. Those who remember her as the complex Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, imperious but vulnerable, longing to be spontaneous but crushed beneath a mountain of responsibility, playful yet rigidly conventional, will find an equally nuanced but totally different performance here. It is indicative of her superlative skill that Dench can make the character of Ursula every bit as three-dimensional, fascinating and appealing as the Queen of England.

A master of physical acting, Dench communicates her character's attraction to the young man with movements that subtly hesitate or go nowhere, quickly deflected into the mundane. Her walk communicates a state of mind - several different states of mind in different circumstances - in a way that is immediately recognizable. Her struggle to conceal her feelings, reflected as a stirring deep below the surface yet somehow made visible on her face shows a conviction in her possession of the character that is rare.

Dance, thankfully, gives her plenty of room both in the script and in his direction - without ever pandering or indulging her - to explore the largely verbally-inexpressive Ursula in these poetically non-verbal ways.

Maggie Smith has been somewhat hampered of late by her position as The Grand Lady of British acting. Too often she has been called upon to play "The Grand Lady," with her aquiline nose and delicate cheekbones and those powerful eyes, and ended up playing a mere representation of a character. This is not because she can't or doesn't want to do more, but simply because she is so powerful a presence that most directors seems to be agog, and unable to do anything beyond simply expose her - not to mention the fact that few writers are creating roles of depth and complexity for women in their sixties and beyond.

Here, she is allowed to get (almost) completely away from her "grande dame' persona, and she obviously relishes the opportunity. She endows Janet with all the little tics and insecurities - as well as the carefully-crafted defenses and deftly concealed longings - that make her into a real person and not just a "role." It is a performance marked by economy and restraint, yet full of powerful feeling, powerfully communicated.

Daniel Brühl stands up well between these two powerful characters. In many ways, he is more of an icon - of youth, of manliness, of beauty, of art - than a character per se. We never learn his backstory - how he came to be such a virtuoso, where his family is, how he ended up in the sea, even - but it doesn't matter. The story is not about him, although his part in it is essential. It is enough that he appear open and appealing, a mirror in which the women can see their desires and dreams reflected. And this he accomplishes very neatly, managing to make Andreas interesting and attractive without displacing the focus of the narrative.

Natascha McElhone's character is likewise more symbolic and catalytic than important in her own right. In fact, we find out very little about her as a person. Like Andreas, Olga remains (like so many people who cross our paths in actual life) mostly unknown. It is the part she plays in the unfolding events, and not her own personality, that is important here.

This kind of treatment of secondary characters is typical of the narrative economy of short stories, and as realized by McElhone and used by Dance here, is very effective. We don't have to know much about Olga to see the effect her presence has on those around her and McElhone plays her - quite rightly - more as a "force of nature," than as a fully-developed individual.

English film has often been remarkable for its skillful use of character actors, and this film is blessed with a wonderfully-appealing performance by Miriam Margolyes as Dorcas, housekeeper and cook to the two sisters. Her wonderfully naturalistic performance has a powerfully-grounding effect on the film, "keeping it real" with a sympathy and connection to the day-to-day that Margolyes makes palpable. Her subtle reactions to what goes on around her provide some of the film's most interesting reflective moments, by offering an additional, quite different perspective. Her comic timing is impeccable and she adds another delightful aspect to an already fine film.

The camerawork, by Peter Biziou with extra footage from Ed Rutherford, is very professional. Much of the filming appears to be location work in the tiny rooms of the cottage, and it is a wonder how they got the perspective they did without distortion in the small spaces. If the interiors were shot on sets, they were amazingly realistic, right down to reproducing the centuries of wear one would expect in a cottage of such great age, and the cinematographers still deserve credit for making the sets (if they were) as simultaneously cramped and cozy as they did.

The set design is wonderful - with all the attention to detail of a Merchant-Ivory film, but without the lavishness and self-consciousness that sometimes makes the background of the M-I films distract from their stories. The costumes, likewise, seemed absolutely authentic and appropriate, without calling undue attention to themselves.

The music is minimal - most notable a few sections of virtuoso violin playing including a climactic tour-de-force, supplied by Joshua Bell - and fits very comfortably with the narrative without any sense of emotional manipulation.

This is simply an amazing first effort. A simple, unpretentious, character driven film, Ladies in Lavender reminds me of such classics of British Cinema as How Green Was My Valley in its ability to evoke emotional power and reverberations of the extraordinary from relatively simple stories of the lives of "ordinary" people. As good an actor as Dance is, it is to be hoped that he will focus on work as a director and writer, where he shows such wonderful promise here.

That's my take on it. What's yours?