In 1936, in a village on the coast of Cornwall, two sisters, Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith), discover a shipwrecked Polish sailor, Andrea (Daniel Brühl), washed up on their beach. They take him in, heal his wounds and teach him English. Brusque Janet is a widow, but the softer, more sensitive Ursula, a spinster all of her life, begins to conceive of a passion for this much younger lad. They discover that he is a gifted violinist, as does an unwelcome interloper in their midst, Olga (Natascha McElhone), a woman who would like to whisk him off to a glorious career in London with her famous violinist brother, Boris Daniloff.

The actor Charles Dance wrote and directed Ladies in Lavender, having found William J. Locke's original short story in an old book used for set dressing on a film he was working on. He's an elegant craftsman and the entire production gleams with a comfortingly detailed care and rare sensitivity to actors' performances. The problem is that just not enough happens. Andrea's backstory is that he is a Jew, wishing to escape increasingly anti-Semitic Warsaw to seek a career in America. Very little is made of this, however, and, apart from a mild suspicion that he may or may not be a German spy, there is almost no plot tension.

Ursula's thwarted passion for Andrea might have also have given the film more heft, but Dance remains at a too-discreet distance from her yearnings, which is a shame, as Dench is surely the actress to vividly give voice to the passions of maturity. She's lovely and, shot by the great cameraman Peter Biziou, rather luminous, but it's a gentle Lillian Gish kind of performance from a woman whom we know always has a fire within. Smith is rather wasted, as Janet has little to do but cluck disapprovingly at the changes wrought in her pristine cottage and furrow her brow over their new charge and his effect on her sibling (although she does get in a few typically "Maggie" imperiously sniffed and witty line readings). Perhaps if the actresses had exchanged roles, this pallid palette would have had more emotional color.

Brühl does what he can with what little he has to work with, but is unable to show anything like the energy and charisma he exhibited in Good Bye, Lenin, the film which got him this job. Dance seems to be resolutely-and rather boringly-heterosexual, as he shies away from eroticizing this actor's sensual appeal for the sisters. Brühl dives into the sea while they watch, but he's wearing a very concealing, old-fashioned bathing suit which belonged to Janet's husband. (Tennessee Williams might have had fun with the adaptation, one imagines.) McElhone is lovely and works hard at her character's German accent, as well as her Boho-aristocratic demeanor. Miriam Margolyes literally fills out the role of Dorcas, the sisters' hard-working housekeeper, described by Andrea, in a rare comic moment, as "a sack of potatoes."

The real stars of the film are the magnificent Cornish scenery-with gulls going crazy in a cove over fishermen and their daily catch-and the sisters' garden (where Andrea seduces them with Massenet's Thais Meditation), and Nigel Hess' lovely original music. As meltingly played by Joshua Bell, it provides something of a cushioning illusion of added depth to the very thin onscreen goings-on.
-David Noh