The first time I saw Judi Dench was when I was in college (1957-1961) and she came to Chicago with Lawrence Harvey in Henry V. There’s a little scene where he is courting by teaching her (she is a French princess) to speak English and she repeats after him “eelbow” so gracefully and sweetly that it’s still indelible in my mind. The first time I really noticed Charles Dance was when everyone else did, too -- in “Jewel in the Crown,” where he was so intelligent and moral without losing any compassion. Maggie Smith -- well, I’ve always known about Maggie Smith. Hasn’t everyone?
My cousin asked whether “The Ladies in Lavender” was a “chick flick,” but it’s actually a grannie film in a way that I don’t think even Charles Dance, who adapted a short story from an old book and directed it with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, realized. It’s an L.M. Montgomery (“Anne of Green Gables”) or Gene Stratton-Porter (“Girl of the Limberlost”) or even Louisa May Alcott sort of story about the relationship between old and young, small town and sophisticated achievement, disappointment and fulfillment. Briefly, a young shipwrecked sailor washes up in the cove where two older ladies (seventies -- my age) live quietly with a sturdy housekeeper. They keep him captive a little while and then, healed and gifted, he escapes -- but with gratitude. The ladies do NOT wear lavender: more peach and apricot, but at intense moments there is blood red. (No blood.) We are instructed that lavender is meant to refer to scented linen closets. Storage. Lavender is also the color you wear in mourning after a year of black. That’s not mentioned, though the portrait of the women’s dead father is shown and there are references to the deceased husband of one woman.
Our times are really lousy at portraying innocent and nurturing love -- we don’t believe in it. We label it and diabolize it, suspecting ulterior motives. But in real life there really is a precious kind of love that is not sexual in the way we’re used to: a nurturing and admiring kind of feeling that knows its limits and accepts its losses when the situation is impossible.
There is also something charming and moral about two people (two sisters in this case) in love but with quite different personal styles so that one is immersed and the other is watching fondly but with some trepidation. Dench always plays the yearning near-child (she’s only five-foot-one) and Maggie Smith or some equivalent plays the practical and perhaps occasionally harsh watcher. “Cranford” is another example. The male version was lurking around in Westerns long before “Brokeback Mountain.” (Yes, Peckinpah.) The small Brit village with its countercurrents of jealousy and wisdom, its pub and harvest, are well-known territory throughout the empire -- Aussie, Canadian, Nova Scotian, and so on. Even on Sesame Street -- did you notice “Bert & Ernie” doing schtick? When you add up the period, the scenery, the ruralness, the fine music, and so on, it is formally called “heritage cinema,” a category that probably ought to be added to Netflix. “My House in Umbria” is a good example -- Maggie Smith again. “Gosford Park” cast Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins as the “two sisters” but we don’t know they are until the end.
There IS a dark side to this sort of capture of a man-child -- and he DOES rebel a little. In a mischievous way. He is a “good child” match for “Ursula”. This story is presented as a fairy tale, so one must accept a child’s point of view. Except that this “sailor” -- who didn’t learn the violin on any ship! -- wouldn’t have minded a little romance with Olga, the wicked and stylish witch, who is very careful to draw boundaries -- no smooching! Real achievement! Today’s parents are a little too inclined to insist that their children be vunderkinder, even if they’re more naturally garden variety urchins. We know about stage mothers, single mothers who make only sons into husbands and lovers. Children as assets, owned.
It would be possible to rewrite this tale into something quite chilling, but don’t ask Charles Dance to do it. The man is secretly Edwardian. Maybe not so secretly. In fact, in the original story the young man went off without saying goodbye, never sent back a painting, never saw the two women again. There is a science fiction story in which an old woman is standing at her sink washing dishes when she sees a young male (no clothes) angel fall into her backyard from the sky. She has some warm milky tea at hand and takes it out to him, hoping it will help. It does. Also, everywhere she touches him, the contact heals her arthritis. Then he revives and flies away. After a while the arthritis cure wears off. That’s the tough modern take of an old story. I suppose one could write a little tale about two old women in a bar who manage to pick up a young man and . . . go ahead! Tell it! (Maybe reverse it: two young men in a bar pick up an old woman!)
In 1987 Charles Dance was quoted as saying he met Meryl Streep and they didn’t “click” which explains why Robert Redford played Denys Finch-Hatton in “Out of Africa” while Dance (who was far more like Denys) was in “White Mischief.” He said Streep was very “intellectual” in her approach to things while he was emotional and intuitive. He liked Shirley Maclaine, though he thought she was a bit “far out.” Here lies the key to this recurring theme of two humans very close to each other but different: they are really two sides of each of us. That is, there are two “sisters” in me -- one the sweet child and one the provident and wary adult -- who are in dialogue all the time about what should be done and how. We love seeing that tension acted out explicitly.
The genius of this movie is that these two women are either wickedly trapped or benignly sheltered; the village is either a magical bit of the past or a dead-end edge of a nation; the young man and his “art” is a bridge to the outside through the alluring “Olga.” What should one do about it? Whether or not Charles Dance and his actors “felt” that or thought it out, it’s there in its double potential.