Take a quiet, isolated village; add a mysterious stranger; stir, and see what happens. It's a recipe that's been used many times, probably because it's so useful in creating a character-based film. Sometimes it's hard to tell what people are like when you just see them in their routines, but when those routines are disrupted, the results can be revealing. In Ladies in Lavender, the stranger is a young man who washes ashore in a storm, half-drowned, and is rescued by the eponymous ladies, two elderly sisters sharing a house in a small seaside town in Cornwall on the eve of World War II. A foreigner who doesn't know a word of English, but who has a ready smile and an affinity for music, the young stranger soon becomes an important part of the lives of the sisters.
Ladies in Lavender brings together quite a few genuine stars to make what turns out to be a low-key and generally charming little film. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who are old friends in real life, are convincing as the two sisters who, despite sharing so much of their daily life together, have somewhat different responses to their unexpected visitor. Miriam Margoyles (probably best known currently as Prof. Sprout in the second Harry Potter film) takes on a distinctive supporting role as the sisters' rough-spoken housekeeper.
The story meanders along without a strong narrative push, but for the most part it keeps the events changing and developing continuously enough to maintain interest. At first, there's the hook of knowing more about Andrea, and seeing how Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) react to this change in their lives. Later, there's a hint of conflict, as the mysterious Olga shows interest in Andrea, sparking a possessive reaction in both sisters; as hints of approaching war begin to arrive over the wireless, there's also the suggestion that foreign Andrea may be in an uncomfortable position. For the most part, though, Ladies in Lavender focuses more on the characters than on the plot events, which allows the film to bypass some potentially clichéd narrative routes and go with an ending that feels right for the film.
At 104 minutes, Ladies in Lavender feels that it's about 20 minutes too long. The beginning and early development of the film work nicely, but at about the hour mark, the story definitely sags; the charm of the situation's novelty has faded, and it takes a bit for the story to settle on the plot thread that will take it to the end of the film. Fortunately, the last twenty minutes or so pick up to a certain extent.
Music enthusiasts will be interested to know that the violin solos (a key element in the film's story) in Ladies in Lavender were performed by Joshua Bell, the same violinist who provided the music for The Red Violin.
Ladies in Lavender is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. The image is clean and pleasing to the eye, with no distracting flaws. Colors look natural, and contrast is handled well.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack handles the demands of the film well. For the most part, it's a dialogue-centered film, and the dialogue is presented cleanly. A few times I felt that the actors' voices were a bit muffled, but other than that, it was fine. The surround sound isn't used all that much, but it does come into play nicely a few times, especially in the early storm scene that gives us the effect of waves crashing all around us. The violin performances are handled quite nicely as well.
A mediocre featurette is included: "Ladies in Lavender: A Fairy Tale" (12 minutes), providing some interviews with the cast and filmmakers. A set of trailers for other films is also included.
Ladies in Lavender is a watchable but very lightweight film that's redeemed largely by the fact that the two lead roles are taken by Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It's not solid enough to really merit a purchase, but it's a reasonable choice as a rental if you are looking for a quiet, character-based film. Rent it.