leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Veteran actresses Maggie Smith and Judy Dench lend extraordinary luster to actor-turned-writer-director Charles Dance's leisurely adaptation of a short story by little-read English author William J. Locke. The year is 1936, and aging sisters Ursula (Dench) and Janet (Smith) share a room in the same Cornish seaside cottage where they were born, and maintain a certain threadbare gentility that sets them slightly apart from their neighbors. Janet was married but widowed young — her husband died in WWI — and Ursula never married at all. Both tended their father until he died, and now measure their days in a predictable routine of meals prepared by the plainspoken Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes), walks on the rocky beach, gardening, books, knitting and listening to the wireless radio. Then a violent storm washes ashore a battered, bruised young man (Daniel Bruhl) with a broken ankle and no identification. The sisters take in the stranger — it's the right thing to do, after all; they wouldn't leave a wounded dog on the beach, either — and nurse him back to health, gradually discovering that he's Polish, his name is Andrea and he plays the violin like an angel. The sisters dote on their guest, but while Janet's attentions are maternal, spinster Ursula becomes romantically infatuated with the handsome youth, even as she's fully, painfully aware how ridiculous it is for a woman her age to lust for a boy young enough to be her grandson. Meanwhile, as a new war in Europe looms, some of the locals begin to wonder whether Andrea might be a spy. Their suspicions are fueled by the arrival of an exotic German tourist, Olga Daniloff (Natascha McElhone), who spurns the attentions of a distinguished, if much older, local doctor (David Warner) while befriending Andrea. The fearful gossip never erupts into physical violence, but this narrative in miniature seethes with powerfully repressed passions that inflict devastating emotional wounds. Dance tinkered with Locke's material, updating the story from the Edwardian era to the '30s and making the sisters older — in the original story Ursula was only in her forties — but the film remains rooted in a set of old-fashioned and particularly British attitudes about decency, plainness and rectitude. Its appeal lies in the powerhouse performances delivered by Dench and Smith, who without fireworks or showboating reveal the vivid, complex inner lives of women who appear superficially dull and ordinary.