This is a movie that I fought to like, mostly for the work of Dench, an actress who will always be amazing. Smith does nice work as well, and the two give it their best shot to breathe life into Dance's meandering screenplay and dull visuals. While the film and the actresses' work sometimes hint at a production of emotional power, what we really wind up with is a story about two older women having tea and listening to the radio. Not very exciting.
Dench plays Ursula, who lives in a 1930s coastal house in England. The world is at the onset of war (we hear news bites on their radio), but Ursula and her sister Janet (Smith) are so isolated, world matters don't seem to interest them all that much. Then a mysterious young man (Daniel Brühl) washes up onshore; they take him in, and suddenly Ursula is longing for more than wading in the ocean with her sister on a sunny afternoon.
They come to find out that the man's name is Andrea. He comes from Poland and possesses masterful musical ability on the violin. He wound up in the ocean for reasons unknown, and the two women take it upon themselves to nurse him back to health with the help of the village doctor (David Warner).
Ursula immediately takes a shine to Andrea, staring at him longingly, touching his hair at night and keeping cut snippets of said hair in her possession (presumably stroking it at night ... eww!). Ursula is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60, and while Andrea appreciates all she's done for him, romance is highly unlikely. To make it even more of a long shot, the screenplay provides Olga, a beautiful neighbor and artist (Natascha McElhone) who conveniently has major music connections.
Smith matches Dench's powerful performance as the protective sister who sees her beloved sibling entertaining lost-cause notions, and doesn't want her to get hurt. Brühl is kind of a wet noodle as Andrea, one of the film's major shortcomings. An energized performer in this important role would've supplied the film with some strain of excitement. As it is, Brühl feels like nothing more than window dressing, just one of the objects Ursula and Janet keep in the house and dust every so often. This would've worked in a movie that's supposed to be creepy, but something tells me that wasn't Dance's intention.
There's a subplot that involves Warner's jealous doctor (he has the hots for Olga) suggesting that the sisters could be German spies or something along those lines. This is the point in the film where the story seems to be going somewhere, and a little intrigue might come into play. Alas, the spy thing is nothing but a tease that is discarded for more important matters, like Ursula's confusion with the Polish language and buying a new suit for Andrea.
For those who own every Merchant-Ivory film and thought Howard's End was the epitome of literary film adaptation, Ladies in Lavender is very much in that vein (although not an M+I film) and stands a good chance of pleasing you on moderate levels. For those who fell asleep during Howard's End and prefer light saber battles to sibling quarrels over a spot of tea, skip this one, and skip it hard.