Ladies in Lavender

2006-03-30 13:00


In the uneasy calm between the two World Wars sisters Ursula (never married) and Janet (widowed) emerge on the first sunny day after a storm to find a handsome young man named Andrea washed up on the beach below their house. The instant Ursula sets eyes on him, she seems strangely loath to let him out of her sight. The sisters rescue him, nurse him back to health, and teach him English (he is Polish.) Soon, though, their friendship and their moral fibre is tested when they begin to compete for his attention, not just with each other but with foreign artist Olga Daniloff, who discovers Andrea's amazing talent as a violinist and wants to help him seek his fortune.


Ladies in Lavender is really a film about desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled, or as the producers prefer to call it, "The story of two sisters who saved a stranger, and the stranger who stole their hearts."

When the beautiful and charming Andrea washes up on their shore, the sisters are serenely living out what are sometimes called "The lavender years" because of old ladies' love of lavender. Lavender, however, is also associated with love and erotic desire. At a time when the sisters have shut out the outside world and settled down, Andrea awakens forgotten or undiscovered desires. Ursula falls in love with him. Her hopeless, girlish yearning to touch him and love him is heartbreakingly portrayed by Judi Dench as she struggles with longing, jealousy and desire.

Maggie Smith, ever skilled at playing the xenophobic English widow, blends an amusing stiff upper lip attitude with slightly pitying tenderness towards her crushy sister. What hides in her composure is that she, like her sister, is possessive of Andrea and wants to keep him where he is, rather than letting him go into the world, find love, and realise his musical talent.

This movie is deeply character-driven. The plot has few turns, and no twists. However, the story's climax comes in classic Shakespearean style, when people are forced to show their love by being selfless, revealing sad and striking truths about human moral frailty. But the film also shows that people can surprise with their grace, and their ability to accept truths that hurt them terribly.

The beautiful, but restrained English rural setting and the wild, wide sea stand in soft contrast as does the nasty parochial side of human nature, and our ability to be brave and beautiful. This film is miserable - even the occasional moments when you're driven to laughter are a bit of a gut wrench, because you're mainly laughing at the foolishness of the characters.

Seen "Babette's Feast"? There are many thematic similarities between this film and that classic - they both explore, through cinematic beauty, the pain you experience when you have the courage to experience joy again. But the happy ending is missing. The finale, with a violin performance by Joshua Bell (ghosting for Andrea) will have you in tears.

- By Jean Barker

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith star as a pair of greying sisters who find their world turned suddenly upside-down by a handsome young stray. A beautiful, heart-breaking tale of love and desire in classic Shakespearean style.

Caroline Buffey 2005/04/21 1:05 PM
Ladies in Lavender Brilliant character studies. Well worth it
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.