I still remember being shocked during the opening scene of Romancing the Stone, a 1984 high-action romantic comedy. Kathleen Turner, the glamorous “It” actress of the early 1980s, looked not just disheveled but downright frumpy. Typing away at a romance novel in overwrought solitude, she plays a mousy writer who finds release by breaking open one of the many tiny alcohol bottles she has spirited away from assorted airplane rides. In my youthful naiveté, I wondered how a beautiful actress could allow herself to look so plain. Soon, however, the film lived up to my Hollywood expectations. During a trip to Colombia, the wallflower novelist meets an intrepid soldier of fortune (played by a dashing Michael Douglas) and, getting pulled into his action-packed adventures, lives a romance more exciting than any she has ever imagined. Transforming into a gorgeous woman, she sports better hair and make-up in the jungles of South America than in the urban flat where the film begins. Imagine that!
Ladies in Lavender (2005) is everything that Romancing the Stone is not—though it begins somewhat similarly. Two frumpy sisters live in uneventful solitude when a handsome young man enters their lives and generates for them beauty and erotic desire. However, Ladies in Lavender is not a Hollywood film. Instead of focusing on the far-fetched adventures of an incipiently beautiful woman who has all her desires fulfilled, Ladies focuses on the problematic nature of desire itself. One of the most beautiful films I ever have experienced, Ladies in Lavender presents beauty in another key.
The eponymous ladies in lavender are Ursula and Janet Widdington (the extraordinary Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, respectively), spinster sisters in their sixties who live along the coast of Cornwall in 1936. The difference between the sisters is revealed in the opening scene as they walk along the shore. Ursula, wading gleefully into the water while Janet sedately sits on shore, splashes her more reticent sister with ocean water. The very practical Janet lovingly rebukes her sister’s childlike impetuousness, as she does throughout the film. She runs the house just as she cranks and drives the car, and Ursula is uninterested in the maintenance of either. But it is Ursula who bounds outside in bare feet after the rain sighing “Everything smells so fresh after the storm.” Little does she know that something fresh will soon overwhelm her life.
The sisters’ cozy tedium is interrupted when they discover that the storm has washed a twenty-something male onto the beach. Taking him into their house, the women show proprietary concern for the Polish stranger, Andrea, who speaks German but no English. Ursula, however, starts showing something more. On the very first night of his stay, she sits at the bedside watching the beautiful boy sleep. When he finally can eat, she drops a flower onto his food tray. While the practical Janet digs up weeds in the garden, Ursula secretly writes notes at a desk inside, which she later pins to various objects in Andrea’s room in order to teach him English. When she holds to her chest a paper with “Ursula” spelled out, upside down, we realize that this Polish stranger has turned her uneventful life upside down. In contrast, Janet’s only response is that Ursula’s English lesson is “making holes in the furniture.” In the next scene, the practical Janet states that Andrea will need new clothes, and that she will use her private inheritance to outfit him. Ursula’s impassioned response is revelatory, “Why not our joint account?... I saw him first!”
The young man causing such upheaval is played by the luminescent Daniel Bruhl, the German actor whose smoldering innocence empowered Good Bye Lenin! (reviewed in The Cresset, Easter 2005). Bruhl’s Andrea romances even the stony heart of Janet, offering gifts not only of flowers but also of teasing affection with convincing disingenuousness. After all, these white-haired, wrinkly spinsters are, most likely, older than his grandparents. We, the audience, understand his naiveté, for Ursula’s increasing desire is ambiguous even to us. Is hers the love of a woman for a child she never had? Does her passion reflect the intense affection teachers can develop for brilliant students?
Andrea’s brilliance comes to light after he hears Janet’s pedestrian piano playing and responds with ear-covered anguish. Signaling that he prefers the violin, Andrea is treated to a performance in his sickroom by a local fiddle-player. After politely listening to the amateur, Andrea gestures for the violin and proceeds to play with extraordinary skill, intensifying his physical beauty with heavenly sound. In a brilliant bit of filmmaking, the writer/director intercuts medium shots of Andrea playing the violin with low-angle shots from his side that cause the moving bow to fill the screen vertically as Ursula stands behind it, the bow moving up and down her frame. A metaphor thus becomes visualized: Andrea plays upon Ursula’s heart strings.
At this point a more attractive love interest enters the film. Outside the Widdington house a gorgeous woman, distracted from her landscape painting by the mellifluous violin, yells “Bravo!” up to the window whence the music drifts. Conditioned by Hollywood convention, we know that this will be the one for whom Andrea falls. Indeed, in the next scene we witness the young woman, Olga, bathed in warm yellows, reds, and browns of firelight, alone in her cottage contemplating Andrea’s beautiful music, which plays for us on the soundtrack. A romantic connection is immediately made between them.
As in Romancing the Stone, like most romantic comedies, various problems impede the budding attraction. The first obstacle is another potential infatuation. Andrea, finally walking and fitted with clothes, attends the village harvest festival, where he makes eyes at a plump redhead, totally oblivious to Olga on the other side of the room. However, warned away by a jealous boyfriend, Andrea directs his love toward the violin rather than the redhead, playing to the wonder of the whole room, and especially of Olga.
The next scene visualizes the impediment of a much more intense infatuation. Ursula and Andrea walk down to the shore, and, as they sit watching the ocean, Andrea lays his head in Ursula’s lap. Though we recognize his gesture as directed toward a vicarious grandmother, Ursula’s response is much more ambiguous. After lifting her wrinkly hand to her beating heart she lowers it toward Andrea’s head, barely daring to graze his hair. It is a gesture of profound tenderness, that of an aged woman who has found either her long-lost son or, more heart-wrenchingly, a long-latent sexual desire. We discover it is the latter when later we are made privy to Ursula’s unconscious: she chastely dreams that a younger version of herself is rolling around in a field of wheat, captured in Andrea’s embrace. Immediately before she wakes, however, the face on the embraced dream-woman becomes that of Olga.
Before the dream, Olga finally had introduced herself to Andrea, bursting in on the ladies’ private garden where he plays the violin for them. At this point, Ursula inscribes Olga with a metaphor of romantic impediment taken straight from ancient romance fiction: “[Olga] frightens me. She’s like the witch in a fairy tale.” The film thus sets up an unusual love triangle: Ursula sees Olga as a love impediment, we see Ursula as a love impediment, while Andrea, so far, sees only his violin.
Meanwhile, another obstacle develops when the village doctor who treats Andrea’s injuries starts ogling Olga. Jealous of how Andrea has attracted the attentions not only of the geriatric sisters but also of the radiant Olga, the doctor suggests notifying the authorities about Andrea, a German-speaking stranger who has infiltrated 1936 England. Worrying over Andrea’s vulnerability, Janet burns an intercepted letter in which Olga, another German-speaker, had introduced herself to him.
Despite all these stones in the pathway of romance, Olga and Andrea finally have a conversation alone, and she invites him to her cottage so that she can paint his portrait. We, the audience, sense that the denouement is at hand: a romantic love scene between two lithesome bodies rather than the loathsome image of Ursula’s fruitless infatuation. Indeed, inside the cottage, as Olga paints and Andrea plays his violin, multiple shot-reverse shots direct attention to their beautiful eyes, each intensely focused on the others’—a common film convention alluding to sexual desire.
Ladies in Lavender, however, prefers to undermine Hollywood convention rather than fulfill it. As Andrea leans in to kiss Olga’s full lips, she pulls back, saying “You must go.” Andrea, as shocked as we are, leaves the cottage. What follows provides a telling commentary. We are given a shot of Olga seated alone in the cottage, her head and shoulders framed by a curtained window that provides the only light in the mise-en-scène. Surrounded by the framed white of the window, Olga’s head thus looks like a portrait on a painter’s canvas—much like the head of Andrea she has been painting on her white canvas. We are given a clue that this film addresses a different kind of beauty and desire than that of stock Hollywood fare.
The shot then cuts to Ursula in front of a window. Repeatedly throughout the film we see Ursula bathed in light as she looks out a window with melancholy longing. This motif operates as a perfect symbol for her experience: she is bathed in a vision of beauty and desire, its fulfillment inaccessible due to a pane-full barrier of glass—glass as old and wrinkly as she. The juxtaposition of these two scenes—of women in front of windows—summarizes the difference between these friends of Andrea: Olga, with the canvas window behind her head, is the beautiful object of Andrea’s desiring eye, while Ursula, who looks through windows at what she cannot have, is the desiring subject, longing for Andrea’s eye.
Another semiotic contrast between the two women appears not long afterwards. We see the practical Janet cut Andrea’s hair, after which Ursula impetuously grabs and pockets one of the locks from the ground. The shot then cuts to a pub where Andrea joins Olga and the doctor at a table. Commenting on Andrea’s haircut, Olga tenderly reaches up and smoothes a lock into place. Not having seen Ursula’s affectionate response to his hair, Andrea is now as baffled as we are by Olga’s. Perhaps he (and hence we) will get the desired romance after all!
Indeed, Olga sends for Andrea and suggests an elopement. But it is not an ordinary elopement. Olga tells Andrea that her brother, the famous violinist Boris Danilof, is in London and that she wants Andrea to meet him. Because Andrea considers Danilof “a god,” and since the train leaves in only a few minutes, he consents to leave without packing or preparing the sisters for his departure. Of course, when Ursula hears the news that Andrea and Olga have surreptitiously run off to London, she moans in despair. We see her crawl onto Andrea’s bed and roll up into a fetal position—as though implying Andrea has left this bed to crawl into that of another woman.
The writer/director then gives us another significant juxtaposition. The shot cuts from Ursula on the bed to a postman delivering a package: it is Olga’s painting of Andrea. An accompanying note apologizes to the sisters for Andrea’s elopement, “I am sorry. You gave me life. Now I have a chance to use it,” and he tells them to listen on 10 November, when he will be performing on the radio. This, we realize, is his new life, born immediately after we saw Ursula in a fetal position.
What happens next is the denouement, and if you want to experience it on your own, stop reading here. However, I cried just as much the second time I viewed the film as I did the first time, which suggests that knowledge of the ending does not destroy its beauty. This, in fact, foregrounds the whole point of the film: artistic beauty can far transcend the plot-driven desires of Hollywood convention.
After Ursula hangs the painting over the fireplace of Andrea’s former bedroom, the shot cuts to scruffy villagers piling into the sisters’ house. The camera then pans over the working class audience as they listen to Andrea’s magnificent violin music over the wireless. Weathered, careworn faces register awe as they silently soak up the lovely sound, making visual William Congreve’s famous line, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”
The camera then cuts to a very different audience, dressed in evening gowns and tails. Listening to the live symphony where Andrea plays lead violin, these people appear as enraptured as the Cornish villagers. Cutting back and forth between these two audiences, the film gives us an image of ourselves: no matter our class or education, we are audience to a film about the consummation of art rather than of sex. Significantly, as the camera pans the London crowd, not only while listening to the symphony but also during a reception afterwards, we never see an image of Olga. She has dropped entirely out of the movie, for her role is over. She elopes with Andrea to marry him to his vocation, rather than to herself. When his art is consummated, she is no longer necessary. The writer/director refuses to give us even the merest glimpse of Olga, thus subverting any hope of a Hollywood ending wherein erotic love trumps all other desire.
Instead, as the camera pans the London crowd, we are finally given a slow tilt that reveals Janet and Ursula in the audience, listening rapturously to Andrea’s performance. The shot lingers on Ursula’s face then dissolves into a montage of earlier shots from the film that obviously comprise Ursula’s memories of Andrea. One memorial image, however, is new: Ursula stands at the edge of the garden and throws the stolen lock of Andrea’s hair into the wind. She has let him go, releasing him into the embrace of his greatest love: the beauty of his art.
The film closes with the sisters leaving the symphony hall, stop-action camera work placing them further and further along an arched hallway as they move toward a darkened exit. But then the shot cuts to them exiting from a similarly darkened arch of stone along their Cornish beach, their backs still to us. As we admire the sun-bathed, wave-washed, gorgeous rocky coast, we are struck with the beauty of their quiet lives—limited, yes, but beautiful nonetheless. This, perhaps, is the best denouement of all.
Crystal Downing is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.