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Friday, December 31, 2010


A couple of nights ago the lovely little film Ladies in Lavender appeared on TV, so we recorded it and watched it, for perhaps the third time.  Directed by Charles Dance, and starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, featuring lots of beautiful Cornish seaside, and rich with folksy nostalgia, it is a gem.

Somehow, though, the plot seemed thin.  The beautiful country scenes, lovely shots of seagulls flying, and -- of course -- the wonderful acting, seemed very necessary to bulk out a very simple plot.  It was not a surprise to note in the credits that it was based on a short story.  So I did a little research, to find that "Ladies in Lavender" is the second story in a 1916 collection called Far-Away Stories by William J. Locke (1863-1930), a writer who featured in the NYT bestseller list a long time ago, but is now forgotten. 

Charles Dance, it seems, found the story by accident.  He was working on a film in Budapest at the time.  This book was one of a pile used as set dressing, and he picked it up and leafed through it, to fill in an idle moment.  And he very shrewdly deduced that with the right actresses and the right treatment, "Ladies in Lavender" could turn into a hit.

So what is the short story like?  Luckily for my curiosity, Far-Away Stories has been digitized.  My first reaction is that Dance paid great respect to the story and the author, capturing its special ambience, even using quite a lot of the dialogue.  It is one of the reasons the film works so well.

The ending is not true to Locke's intention, which was to draw a grittily sad conclusion (in the story, after Andrea flits off to London, the sisters never hear from him again), but he judged his audience well, because in the film the gently sentimental leavetaking, accompanied by Joshua Bell's superb violin playing, is a wonderfully warm-and-woolly conclusion.

There are a couple of other departures from Locke's story.  The "old maids" in the story are in their forties, so are not old ladies.  They both (not just Ursula) fall in love with the beautiful young man, and vie jealously for his attention, so suffer equally at the end.

And "beautiful" he is indeed, which I found amusing.  Witness the paragraph where Ursula finds out that the young man speaks in some incomprehensible foreign tongue.  She tries him out in her bad German -- at which "his face lit up with a smile so radiant that Miss Ursula wondered how Providence could have neglected to inspire a being so beautiful with a knowledge of the English language."

But as a hint of the rather brutal ending to come, it worked.  The style seems pretentious now, but William J. Locke knew exactly what he was doing. 

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