Most films are improved by mystery: the less viewers know about what they're about to see, the more likely they are to be surprised and entertained. But occasionally, a little advance intel can make all the difference in the moviegoing experience. In the case of Charles Dance's directorial debut Ladies In Lavender, it's important to go in knowing the central secret of the movie: Nothing exciting is going to happen. Ever. Armed with that knowledge, viewers should be able to settle down and enjoy the extremely low-key, melancholy character study that plays out between a handful of excellent actors. But while some plot threads point in the direction of conflict, or at least a more dynamic story, they never amount to more than brief teases.
The film begins with what seems like a mystery, as a young man (Good Bye Lenin! star Daniel Brühl) washes up unconscious on the rural British coast in 1936. There's no wreckage or sign of other shipwreck survivors, so when a pair of aging sisters (Maggie Smith and Judi Dench) take Brühl in, they're understandably curious about his story. But he only speaks German, and between his bewilderment and Smith and Dench's fluttery uncertainty over the disruption in their familiar routines, communication proves difficult. Nonetheless, the sisters nurse him as his broken ankle heals, and Dench also begins nursing a vivid crush on the boy, who's some 40 years her junior. When Brühl meets a beautiful, independent painter (Natascha McElhone) who happens to speak German, it's odd that he doesn't seem delighted to have someone to talk to, but he does ultimately take a romantic interest in her, to Dench's fury.
Brühl's origins and intentions are never explained, so his ultimate destination doesn't seem as meaningful as it might, but Dance's adaptation of a William J. Locke short story focuses far more on the process than the resolution. Brühl, Dench, and Smith have all been spectacular in more demanding roles, and while they're charming enough here, Dance doesn't require much of them apart from oblique looks, geniality, and occasional muzzled resentment. Brühl, in particular, is expressive but underutilized; his limited conversational abilities turn him into more of a McGuffin than a full character. That leaves Ladies In Lavender to turn primarily on Dench and Smith's pleasant, understated chemistry, and on a slow-burning story that has nowhere to go. Very much like his version of 1936 Cornwall, Dance's debut is rough-edged, simple, quiet, and thoroughly frozen in one insular, isolated moment in time.