Put Judi Dench and Maggie Smith together to read their grocery lists and you’d be halfway to a decent film.
“Ladies in Lavender,” the directing debut of British actor Charles Dance, casts Dench and Smith in a quiet little drama of reflection, regret and resignation involving two elderly sisters and a young violinist who briefly enters their lives.
Not a whole lot happens on the surface, though the pairing of Dench and Smith elevates the film far above its skimpy story. Even as mousy women whom the world has passed by, they are commanding presences, their inner turmoil played out in glances both fierce and fearful.
The film meanders through a dead-end subplot or two, and its pivotal crisis relies on a case of implausible happenstance. Yet Dance, adapting the screenplay from a short story by William J. Locke, fleshes out the tale into a vibrant portrait of an English community clinging to its seclusion as Europe inches toward World War II.
“Ladies in Lavender” is set in the seaside town of Cornwall in 1936. Aging sisters Janet (Smith), a mildly bossy war widow, and Ursula (Dench), a fragile spinster, dwell quietly in their family cottage, nearing life’s finish line with not much to show for it beyond each other.
Washed up on their beach after a storm is Andrea (Daniel Bruhl of the German hit “Good Bye, Lenin!”), a Polish emigre who had been bound for America when he was blown overboard.
The sisters take in Andrea, a violin wizard whose music, youthful exuberance and passionate innocence stir maternal feelings in Janet and memories of lost love, either real or imagined, in Ursula.
Violinist Joshua Bell provides Andrea’s music, his glorious solos alone making “Ladies in Lavender” worth seeing.
Janet and Ursula feel like young girls again, down to petty jealousies that arise between them and suspicions over the motives of Olga (Natascha McElhone), a Russian visitor who happens to have a world-class violinist for a brother. Olga befriends Andrea, convinced he’s destined for the great concert halls.
Her presence is farfetched. The sister of a violin master just happens to pass a remote cottage in Cornwall at precisely the moment undiscovered prodigy Andrea gets down to some serious fiddling?
Still, McElhone is a classy, exotic counterpoint to the fidgety, frumpy sisters, while Miriam Margolyes offers crabbily comic support as Ursula and Janet’s housekeeper. David Warner is stern and sturdy as the town doctor, though his wishful romantic subplot involving Olga ends up a pointless distraction to the main story.
Andrea is largely a blank slate, a pretty face and gleaming smile to tantalize the dowagers. But through sheer earnestness, Bruhl infuses the young man with warmth and charm.
The ladies themselves rule, the delicate interplay between two dames of British drama a treat to savor. Dench and Smith instill the old birds with history so rich and palpable, a full image of their life stories unfolds through nothing but spare dialogue and reflective expressions.
Nothing approaching profound ever emerges from Janet and Ursula’s last little waltz, the film ultimately weighing in like “Babette’s Feast” on a diet. No gourmet eats, but a solid meal nonetheless.