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Great dames 

An old woman confronts her youth and a young woman finds herself old.

What an awful title, Ladies in Lavender. Of course it's an English film set in the sepia-toned past with tinkling teacups and endlessly burning hearths. And of course it has old ladies in it--in this case, the one-two punch of the cinema world's greatest dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. So, with all the anticipation one might muster for a tonsillectomy, I gritted my teeth, checked my pretensions to masculinity at the door and settled in to watch Ladies in Lavender.

By the standards of my rock-bottom expectations, I rather enjoyed parts of Ladies in Lavender, most precisely when Dame Judi was on the screen. The rest of the time my thoughts were pleasantly filled with memories of other films and literary works about older women who live together despite their overriding but usually unrealized urge to kill one another. In its best moments, Ladies in Lavender suggests certain stories by Patricia Highsmith or movies like Harold and Maude or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

As it happens, Ladies in Lavender is the story of two old sisters in a seaside village in Cornwall who discover a shipwrecked young man lying face-down on their stretch of beach. Janet (Smith), the older and bossier of the two, initially takes charge of the man's convalescence while timid and dreamy Ursula (Dench) teaches English to their visitor, who turns out to be a Polish violin prodigy named Andrea. If this tale of a mysterious shipwrecked foreigner has the ring of a distinctly pre-modern story--like, say, Gulliver's Travels or Twelfth Night--it's because the script is adapted from a story by an early 20th-century novelist named William J. Locke. Although Ladies in Lavender is ultimately as memorable as the collected works of William J. Locke, Dench's performance brings the film to flickering and occasionally blazing light.

Dench's Ursula is, we're given to understand, a woman who never had a husband, boyfriend or lover--a virgin, in other words. When Ursula finds herself tending a man who is handsome, sweet, sensitive, and a brilliant musician to boot, she does what any young woman would do: She falls madly and terribly in love. While such mistimed passions aren't particularly new in movies, Dench delivers a riveting performance as a fading flower who is feeling the bloom of erotic love for the first time. It's the kind of brilliant turn by an older actress in a niche movie that probably won't get the notice it deserves--just as Judith Ivey's fine work as an aging prostitute-turned-snowbird in last year's What Alice Found was ignored by the prize-givers. (Dame Judi, of course, isn't exactly hurting for recognition.)

As the object of Ursula's hapless fantasies, Daniel Brühl--last seen locally in Goodbye Lenin!--plays his part with little more than a bewildered smile. Competing with Ursula for his affections is Natascha McElhone's Olga, a Russian painter who appears from time to time to exult over Andrea's musicianship. McElhone is easy on the eyes but in this movie she appears as if she'd wandered off the set of Solaris--or the planet of Solaris. As Ursula's bossy sister Janet, Maggie Smith has less to chew on in her role as the one who can claim sexual worldliness by virtue of once having had a fiancé who died in the Great War before their marriage. Janet runs the household and her filial role is to be the enforcer, the realist, the rain on Ursula's parade. In Ladies in Lavender, Smith is perfectly fine playing second fiddle to Dench, but I wish she could have been given a few lines as delightfully bitchy as the ones she got to deliver in Gosford Park.

Smith has been playing old biddies from the very beginning of my life as a seeker of fancy movies: One of the first films I ever sought out because of its supposed appeal to intellectuals was A Room with a View, and she was in it. However, the best of her recent roles is the brothel keeper-turned-romance novelist she played in the 2003 HBO flick My House in Umbria. That movie, in which the genteel Maggie Smith persona was brought face to face with modern terrorism, was adapted from a William Trevor novella. More than anything, I found myself wishing that Ladies in Lavender had come from the pen of William Trevor rather than William Locke. Trevor, who publishes several short stories a year in The New Yorker, is the Dostoevsky of Anglo-Irish rural realism. His stories are filled with lonely, constrained and aging men and women who nurse violent passions underneath their drab, workaday exteriors. Trevor's gaze is merciless but compassionate, well-mannered but never sentimental. Had Ladies in Lavender been his work, the film would have the dangerous and perverse edge it so sorely needs.

What a difference four years makes. In 2001 Hayao Miyazaki was roundly and universally celebrated as the director of Spirited Away, his gorgeous and haunting follow-up to his Princess Mononoke. This time out, Howl's Moving Castle, his latest film, has been ignominiously shoveled into the most remote theater of a 20-screen multiplex in Cary for its opening weekend. The film will open on several additional screens this Friday, but it's puzzling that the film is receiving such a shabby release considering Miyazaki's track record, the excellent reviews and the lucrative box office grosses elsewhere in the world.

But all of this is not to suggest that I'm working myself up into a righteous fury over the slighting of this film. As beautiful as Howl's Moving Castle is, and as much as Miyazaki is a treasured and imaginative avatar of traditional cel animation technique, I wasn't very moved by it. Maybe I was tired, but this film left me cold. Somewhere along the way, I lost my investment in Miyazaki's story of a charming, neglected young girl who is turned into a crone by an evil witch. Where Spirited Away was a mysterious, numinous and ethereal trip into a child's dream world, Howl's Moving Castle seemed defiantly earthbound, despite the peregrinating domicile of the title.

For me, the air went out of the balloon when I heard the voice of Billy Crystal enunciating the thoughts of Calcifer, the talking hearth-fire. The animation of the fire was a problem, a bit of flat flame with a couple of eyes that seemed more consistent with Saturday morning television standards. But it was Crystal himself that was the bigger irritation. He was clearly cast to provide the comic motormouth that is painfully de rigeur in Hollywood animation, whether it's Robin Williams doing the genie in Aladdin, Ellen DeGeneres doing Dory in Finding Nemo or Eddie Murphy as the Donkey in Shrek. There's value in this stock sidekick character, but Crystal's turn as a petulant demon-pal is so aggressively tuned to contemporary American tastes that Howl's Moving Castle loses a good bit of the sheer wonder and mystery of Miyazaki's earlier work.


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