Adapted from William J. Locke's short story, Ladies in Lavender is the story of two English sisters living a quiet life along a stretch of rocky Cornwall coast. Janet Widdington (Maggie Smith) lost her husband in the war and never remarried. It is 1936, and for two decades now she's shared her house with her slightly younger sister, Ursula (Judi Dench), who has never married at all. The sisters read, knit, garden, listen to the radio (which warns of a new war brewing) and take tea served by their crusty housekeeper Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes). Then one bright morning after a tempestuous overnight storm, something almost magical disrupts the sisters' routine: They spy a figure prone on the beach and discover the battered and almost drowned body of a young man.
The film never reveals the resources that allow the sisters to engage in the acts of charity that follow. The sisters are not rich, but they are apparently secure enough financially to afford generosity. They call local Dr. Mead (David Warner), who diagnoses a broken ankle as the young man's most serious injury and prescribes extensive bed rest as the key to recovery. When he finally regains consciousness, the young man can speak no English. After much pantomime, Janet manages to communicate with him in German and learns that his name is Andrea (Daniel Bruhl) and that he's Polish. Almost immediately the sisters embrace Andrea as a mascot, an unrelated younger "nephew" on whom they can dote and splurge. They warm pajamas for him by the fire, get him crutches, buy him a suit. Ursula teaches him English. Then they arrange for the local fiddler to cheer him with a few lively tunes, and it develops that Andrea is an astonishingly accomplished violinist who was shipwrecked on his way to a new life in America.
Though critics elsewhere deny it, Ladies in Lavender does develop a plot out of these materials. From the start, we can see that Ursula is smitten with Andrea, early on in ways not unlike a child might be enthralled with a doll. When Janet proposes some action with regard to Andrea that Ursula doesn't like, the latter counters sullenly, "I saw him first." This one-sided October/April infatuation increases in intensity one day when Andrea, drowsy and blue after a walk and a picnic, lays his head against Ursula's side as they sit in the grass. His gesture is that of a child with a trusted adult, but we can see in Ursula's haunted, yearning eyes as she twines her fingers in his hair that her aching feelings are not maternal, but, yes, though never pruriently so, sexual. Ursula has never had sex, we gather, because she's never had the opportunity. And now she's old, and the boy with his head in her lap would never look upon her with sexual desire. A world of sadness emanates from this scene. Ursula knows that she cannot have what she wants, which is this boy right now, and which, even more, is her vanished youth when this boy might have wanted her in return.
Add to this situation the sudden (and too convenient) appearance in town of a beautiful Russian painter named Olga (Natascha McElhone) who sparks up an interest in Andrea from their first meeting. How can Ursula compete with the willowy likes of Olga, whom she deems a witch? Is there anything she can do? The Russian and Pole communicate in German, and Dr. Mead wonders if they might be spies, even suggesting such a notion to the local police chief. Could such a notion conceivably be true, and if so, how ought the townspeople respond?
I readily concede that Ladies in Lavender never ventures down the wild roads of narrative contrivance that American audiences conventionally demand. Its pleasures are those of subtlety unleashed by wonderful, naturalistic performances by all the players. In the end, I am reminded of another short story, John Steinbeck's quietly brilliant "Chrysanthemums," which tells of a lonely housewife's encounter with an itinerant tinker. There, as here, more happens than at first seems. A world that might have been is briefly glimpsed then closed away, and the characters lapse back into previous lives perhaps the worse for knowing more explicitly what can never be.