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Taking place in pre-war England, aging sisters Ursula and Janet live peacefully in their cottage on the shore of Cornwall. One morning following a violent storm, the sisters spot from their garden a nearly-drowned man lying on the beach. They nurse him back to health, and discover that he is Polish. Communicating in broken German while they teach him English, they learn his name is Andrea and that he is a particularly gifted violinist. His boat was on its way to America, where he is headed to look for a better life. It doesn't take long for them to become attached to Andrea, and they dote on him. Other townspeople, however, have their suspicions, especially when he befriends a Russian woman, Olga. Written by
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'If music be the language of love, play on!' : A Fairy Tale
Short stories often make better films than full novels as is evident in the case of JD Locke's 'Ladies in Lavender' as adapted for the screen and directed by the multi-talented Charles Dance. Given the barest outline of a quiet little idea of a 'fairy tale', LADIES IN LAVENDER becomes an unfolding meditation of quiet lives altered by an incident that awakens sleeping needs and emotions.
Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) are elderly sisters living a quiet life of gardening, strolling the cliffs and beach of Cornwall, knitting, and reading. Their bumpy housekeeper Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes) cooks, cleans, shops, and chatters in a wonderful Cornish brogue, allowing the sisters to live an otherwise isolated life - isolated from history, personal emotions, and vulnerabilities. After a storm Ursula spies a figure on the beach below their home and the two descend to find an unconscious handsome young man whom they rescue, house, nurture, mend a broken ankle and ultimately become doting adorers. The young man Andrea (Daniel Brühl) finally awakens, speaks no English as he is Polish, and his charming ways attract inner emotions in both sisters. Janet studies some German and is able to speak with Andreas, while Ursula pastes English words on items in his room to teach him English. He mends and it is discovered that he is a concert violinist who was shipwrecked while striving to go to America. A Russian visitor to the town, Olga (Natascha McElhone), the requisite 'evil witch' for a fairy tale, hears Andreas play, informs him she has a cousin who is a famous violinist, and attracts him away from Cornwall to London where he ultimately gives his own concert.
Those are the bare facts of the film's story. The magic lies not in the story itself but in the submerged feelings of the two sisters. Ursula, having never been in love in her youth, falls in love with Andrea, fully aware that there is no possibility of consummation. She feels long desired emotional attachment to the lad and the stirring in her breast is overwhelming to her. Janet, who once loved but lost that love to death, likewise falls for Andrea. It is this sibling rivalry over the passion for Andrea that provides some of the most touching and understated brilliant acting moments ever recorded on film. There is a scene where, resting from a stroll on the cliffs, Andrea rests with his head on Ursula's lap, perhaps the first physical contact with a man she has ever known, and the gentility of the slow and reticent placement of her hand on Andrea's resting head is a crystal of acting magic. How the sisters cope with this time with Andrea and his eventual leaving for his career is the climax of the film. And touching and understated it is.
Judi Dench and Maggie Smith give pitch perfect characterizations, creating two lovely beings we will never forget. Likewise Daniel Brühl is superb in a role far different from his usual German repertoire (Goodbye Lenin!, The Edukators, Love in Thoughts) and manages to create the illusion that he is actually playing the violin (while the true artist is Joshua Bell in some stunning performances). The atmosphere of Cornwall is magically captured by Dance and his cinematographer Peter Biziou with assistance from Ed Rutherford. Nigel Hess has written a musical score, incorporating well-known classical violin works as well as his own hauntingly beautiful music that adds immeasurably to the film's success.
LADIES IN LAVENDER is not a major blockbuster of a success nor does it try to be. It is simply a exquisitely crafted and acted fairy tale that gently reminds us that age does not prevent the heart from responding to that most beautiful of emotions, Love. Highly recommended. Grady Harp
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