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Originally published Friday, May 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Two film legends provide a comfy visit to Cornwall

Some movies arrive with built-in audiences — it's safe to predict that "The Longest Yard," for example, will have entry lines heavily...

Seattle Times movie critic

Some movies arrive with built-in audiences — it's safe to predict that "The Longest Yard," for example, will have entry lines heavily populated by young males wearing clothing that wouldn't look out of place in a locker room. Now, despite the warmer weather, we might just see a tempest of tweed outside the Seven Gables, where the catnip-for-Anglophiles literary drama "Ladies in Lavender" is settling in for a genteel run.

And for that target audience — which, I should hasten to say, includes myself — the film won't disappoint. It won't dazzle, either. "Ladies in Lavender," written and directed by Charles Dance from a William J. Locke short story, is the story of two spinster sisters living in 1936 Cornwall, whose quiet lives are interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger. It's prettily filmed (on location, with the rugged Cornwall coastline turning in a fine performance), sweetly wistful and entirely unsurprising.

Movie review ***

Showtimes and trailer

"Ladies in Lavender," with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Natascha McElhone, Miriam Margolyes, David Warner, Daniel Bruhl. Written and directed by Charles Dance, based on a short story by William J. Locke. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Seven Gables.

Were the roles of the sisters played by run-of-the-mill performers, there'd be little reason to watch this film. But Dance has had the great good fortune to cast two legendary British actresses, and thus "Ladies in Lavender" gets elevated to the rare-treat category. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, fussing about in their flowing frocks, bring a cut-glass perfection to each line and a sisterly warmth to the drama. We relax in their presence, knowing that these two great Dames have slipped into the roles of Ursula and Janet Widdington as easily as a favorite cardigan.

The other actors don't register much, and they don't need to. Daniel Bruhl (so good in "Goodbye Lenin!") plays the injured young musician Andrea as a bit of a blank slate, but it makes sense in context. Natascha McElhone, as a visitor to the area who recognizes Andrea's talent, mostly exists to smile winsomely and wear boho-chic '30s fashions, both of which she does impeccably. They — and we — know that this is a two-woman show, and they're merely the frame around the picture.

Perhaps Dance might have added more oomph to the proceedings by casting his two stars against type. Ursula, played by Dench, is a childlike dreamer, while Janet is more rigid and controlled (reminiscent of Smith's clenched-jaw chaperone Charlotte Bartlett in "A Room with a View"). We've seen both actresses play this kind of role before, and a switch might have made the movie less predictable. Still, that's a quibble. "Ladies in Lavender" goes exactly where you think it will, and does exactly what you expect, and sometimes, that's a comfort.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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