Ladies in Lavender



Main Cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith

Director: Charles Dance

We’ve had the first booking for my new national tour of Chicken Strips and Ranch Dressing.  We open in the main worship sanctuary of The Evenstar Baptist Tabernacle in Slick Lizard, Alabama at the end of the month.  I am ever so excited, but it does mean that we have to get cracking on all of the design elements which have to not only be glamorous and elegant but also up to the rigors of touring. 

The recent spike in the cost of fuel has made us recalculate the tour budget and rather than a 55 foot semi-trailer with a large picture of me painted on the side, we’re going to have to transport everything in a small fleet of U-Haul vans.  Joseph, my manager is working with U-Haul to get permission to have them repainted with our logo and with a smiling portrait of me on the hood, but the final word has not yet come down from their C-Suite.  

We need to boost the glamour of our fleet!

Mr. Boyer (no relation to Charles), my brilliant set designer has come up with an interlocking set of acting cubes that can be arranged in ever so many ways to depict place without having to have too many large set pieces.  And they should fit nicely in our more limited cargo areas.

Kim Dee and Mary Gee, my talented seamstresses and costume designers, are working hard on any number of glamorous gowns for me and the ladies of the Chicken Ranch.  Given that we’re going for a more family friendly version of the show, lingerie is out and we’re going for a modern country look with high necklines and long sleeves and full skirts. 

They will, of course, all have appropriate sequin trim and I have an ostrich feather headpiece for my opening number that is to die for.  We’ve also been advised that football is considered a bit déclassé these days so we’re looking at recasting the male chorus to the Aggie water polo team.  I’ve cleared out the second best formal dining room here at Condo Maine to use as a rehearsal hall and we start staging this next week.  I simply haven’t had time to think about potential costars so I called up Central Casting and asked them to send over an appropriate slate of people who will be available for the next six months or so.  I’ll let the director bother with the details. 

I was so exhausted by the end of the day today that I simply had to sit down and put my feet up with a film.  I was not in the mood for anything too rambunctious with superheroes or explosions, so I made myself a nice large vodka tonic and retired to the home theater where I put on Amazon Prime and flipped through their film offerings.  I settled on Ladies in Lavender after seeing it starred Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. 

It was a film I had vaguely heard of some years ago but had never seen and I figured it might be just what was needed after a long and tiring day.  I was correct in my assessment.  Ladies in Lavender is one of those cozy British domestic dramas, small in scale but impeccably performed, a kind of film that American studios have long since abandoned.

Maggie and Judi play two maiden lady sisters, Janet and Ursula, who live in a cottage on the Cornish coast.  The time is the late 1930s, just before the start of the second world war, and aging spinsters, due to the wholesale wiping out of marriageable men by the first world war, were plentiful. 

One night, there is a storm, and the next morning, the sisters find a young man washed up on their beach.  Andrea (Daniel Bruhl) speaks minimal English, so communication is difficult until the sisters realize he understands their faulty German.  They find out he is Polish and a violinist who was accidentally washed overboard in the storm. 

The sisters, together with their grumpy housekeeper (Miriam Margolyes) and the local doctor (David Warner), proceed to nurse Andrea back to health. Things get complicated when a young woman artist Olga (Natascha McElhone) enters the picture.  There’s not a lot of plot as it’s more character study than journey forward but some characters get what they want, and some don’t.

Ladies in Lavender, based on a short story by William Locke, was written and directed by Charles Dance, better known as an actor from projects such as The Jewel in the Crown and Game of Thrones where he was unforgettable as the ruthless Tywin Lannister.  Dance captures the picturesque Cornish countryside and coastline but occasionally cuts away to one too many seagulls in flight.  I think it’s supposed to be a visual metaphor, but it comes across as clumsy and stilted. 

The cast of old pros are all terrific in their roles and it’s a joy to watch Dame Maggie and Dame Judi play off each other as simple country spinsters with limited resources.  It’s clear that these two women care deeply for each other and need each other to survive a life that has handed them little but disappointments. 

Daniel Bruhl, who performs mainly in German films, has a naïve sweetness and fresh good looks which counterbalance the weathered countenances of most of the rest of the cast.  He looks like he could be a violinist, but his solos are dubbed by Joshua Bell so it’s tough to say if he actually plays the instrument.

Ladies in Lavender is more dramatic and less comedic than other British films of the same type and era such as Widow’s Peak or Waking Ned Devine.  What humor there is is droll and understated, much of it coming from the bevy of character actors playing the denizens of the local town who meet up at the pub on an evening.  Where an American film would have cast these roles with conventionally good looking people, this film gives us a gamut of interesting faces and body shapes which are unusual on celluloid but fairly true to actual life experience and they help ground the movie in a reality that might otherwise be lacking.

While Ladies in Lavender is not necessarily groundbreaking in any sense, it does allow the viewer to spend a couple of hours with old friends at the top of their game.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a good cuppa tea, a scone with clotted cream, and cucumber sandwiches.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bathing costume.  Saved lock of hair.  Pub bowling. Village dance. Gratuitous suit shopping. Landscape watercolors. Important telegram. Fancy concert hall. Wireless party.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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