Set in picturesque coastal Cornwall, in a tight-knit fishing village in 1936, Ladies in Lavender stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith playing the leading roles of sisters Ursula (Dench) and Janet Widdington (Smith). A gifted young Polish violinist from Kraków, Andrea (played by German actor Daniel Brühl) is sailing to America when he is swept overboard from his ship in a storm. When the Widdington sisters discover the handsome stranger washed-up on the beach below their house, they nurse him back to health. However, the presence of the musically talented young man disrupts the peaceful lives of the sisters and the community in which they live.
Holidaying artist Olga Daniloff, the sister of famed violinist Boris Daniloff, becomes interested in Andrea after hearing him play the violin. As time progresses, Olga and Andrea grow closer. Olga tells her brother of Andrea's talent, and he asks to meet Andrea in London. Although Andrea cares deeply for the sisters, he knows this is his chance to start a career, and he leaves with Olga without saying goodbye to the sisters. He later sends them a letter, along with a portrait of himself painted by Olga, thanking them for saving his life. The sisters travel to London to attend Andrea's first public performance in Britain, while the rest of the village listens in on the wireless.
William Locke's original story was first published on 26 December 1908 in Collier's magazine, Vol.42, later appearing in book form in his short-story collection Faraway Stories (1916).
The film marked the directorial debut of actor Charles Dance. Longtime friends Maggie Smith and Judi Dench were appearing together in a play in London's West End when Dance first approached them about the project. They immediately accepted his offer without even reading the script they said in the film featurette Ladies In Lavender: A Fairy Tale. The film is the first English language role for German actor Daniel Brühl.
Filming took place in September and October 2003. Exteriors were filmed in Cadgwith, Helston, St. Ives and Prussia Cove in Cornwall. Interiors were filmed at the Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.
The film's original music was written by Nigel Hess and performed by Joshua Bell and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Hess received a Classical BRIT Awards nomination for Best Soundtrack Composer.
The violin music played by Andrea, including compositions by Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolò Paganini, Jules Massenet, Claude Debussy, Pablo de Sarasate and Johann Sebastian Bach, was also performed by Bell.
- "Ladies in Lavender" (Joshua Bell) – 4:06
- "Olga" (Joshua Bell) – 3:31
- "Teaching Andrea" (Joshua Bell) – 2:53
- "Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra" (Joshua Bell) – 3:40
- "Méditation from Thaïs" by Jules Massenet (Joshua Bell) – 5:01
- "Our Secret" (Joshua Bell) – 2:01
- "On the Beach" (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) – 2:33
- "Introduction and Tarantella, Op. 43" by Pablo de Sarasate (Joshua Bell) – 5:16
- "The Letter" (Joshua Bell) – 2:25
- "Polish Dance – Zabawa Weselna" (Joshua Bell) – 2:41
- "Stirrings" (Joshua Bell) – 1:50
- "Potatoes" (Joshua Bell) – 1:49
- "The Girl With Flaxen Hair" by Claude Debussy (Joshua Bell) – 2:33
- "A Broken Heart" (Joshua Bell) – 3:33
- "Two Sisters" (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) – 2:22
- "The Carnival of Venice" (Joshua Bell) – 9:20
Ladies in Lavender grossed £2,604,852 (GBP) in the UK and $6,759,422 (USD) in the US (on limited release). Its total worldwide gross was $20,439,793 (USD). It received its New York premiere at the 4th Annual Tribeca Film Festival. Prior to its release in the UK, the film was shown at the Taormina Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. It was released as Les Dames de Cornouailles in France, Der Duft von Lavendel in Germany, Lavendelflickorna in Sweden, and Parfum de lavande in French-speaking Canada. Both Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were nominated for Best European Actress at the European Film Awards. Dench was nominated for the ALFS Award for British Actress of the Year by the London Film Critics Circle. The film was positively received by the critics.
In his review in The New York Times, critic Stephen Holden wrote:
[Dench and Smith] sink into their roles as comfortably as house cats burrowing into a down quilt on a windswept, rainy night... This amiably far-fetched film... heralds the return of the Comfy Movie (increasingly rare nowadays), the cinematic equivalent of a visit from a cherished but increasingly dithery maiden aunt. In this fading, sentimental genre peopled with grandes dames (usually English) making "grande" pronouncements, the world revolves around tea, gardening and misty watercolor memories.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film "perfectly sweet and civilized... It's a pleasure to watch Smith and Dench together; their acting is so natural it could be breathing."
In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw observed that "despite a bit of shortbread-sugary emotion and an ending that fizzles out disappointingly, there's some nice period detail and decent lines in Charles Dance's directing debut," while Philip French of The Observer commented on the "beautiful setting, a succession of implausible incidents, and characteristically excellent work from Smith (all suppression and stoicism) and Dench (exuding unfulfilled yearning)."
Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix said, "This exercise in scenery and music is as innocuous as a nosegay." In the Chicago Tribune, Robert K. Elder awarded the film two out of a possible four stars and added:
[it] exemplifies that kind of polite, underdramatic Masterpiece Theatre staging that can either provide a surgical examination of English society or bore the pants off you. Ladies in Lavender does a bit of both... director Dance's momentum fades soon after Andrea's ankle mends, and we're left with a vague back story involving Andrea's intent to emigrate to America, though the mystery of how he ended up in Cornwall is never revisited nor revealed. [He] becomes sort of a blank character, a personality on whom we can impose our own curiosity and emotions... as compelling and original as this theme is, it's not enough to keep our attention, no matter how lovely the ladies in lavender are."