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Ladies in Lavender

(2005) ** Pg
104 min. IDP Distribution. Director: Charles Dance. Cast: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston, Michael Gambon, Daniel Bruhl.

Screenwriters adapting novels must pare down a wealth of material, while screenwriters adapting short stories must elaborate on simply etched narratives. The unfortunate Ladies in Lavender belongs to the latter category, adapted as it is from a William J. Locke story into an austere vehicle for Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. First-time writer-director-producer Charles Dance has a prodigious list of acting credits, and he's clearly set out to provide an actor's showcase, but the odd result fails in this task.

Dench and Smith play spinster sisters in a Cornish fishing village. Their lives change when a near-drowned young Polish man (Daniel Brühl of Goodbye Lenin!) washes up on their shore. Taking the beautiful youth into their home, the women can't help but dredge up their own Romantic regret, even though it threatens the young man's happiness and their own. (Classical enthusiasts, take note: Joshua Bell provides the young man's violin skills.)

Smith's part is prim-and-proper boilerplate, and though I'm quite sure it's sacrilege to say it, Dance allows Dench to overact her lovestruck nervousness as if she were playing to a stage audience. Dance's melodramatic use of slo-mo only makes matters worse, and though he wisely backs away from highfalutin' dialogue, he goes too far, leaving actors like Natasha McElhone to play thinly sketched characters. By the time he stages a hay-baling montage, you'll have had enough of this close-but-no-cigar misfire.

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