Purple prose: Grande dames save weak scrip

There's not much to Ladies in Lavender, but not much is required when two of the best actresses on the planet get to strut their stuff for an hour and three-quarters.

Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are the reasons for seeing Ladies in Lavender, which would otherwise skew toward the low end of the Masterpiece Theatre spectrum. It looks great with the scenic Cornwall coast as a backdrop, but its slender story could be told considerably better.

It's the first film as writer and director for actor Charles Dance, who adapted it from a short story by William J. Locke. He's gotten great work from his actors, including some subtleties that might have been overloaded, but his screenplay omits important details, starting with the year the events take place.

Advanced from the original story's turn-of-the-last-century, it's 1936; but except for electricity and motor cars ,it could be 1836. The buildings and the way of life haven't changed. Janet (Smith) lost her husband in the war (WWI). Her sister, Ursula (Dench), has never been married; she may well still be a virgin. They live together in a cottage with their housekeeper, Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes), where their routine probably hasn't been interrupted in a couple of decades.

That changes when a young man (Daniel Bruhl) washes ashore. The sisters have him carried to their house and looked after by Dr. Mead (David Warner). When he wakes after a couple of days, they find he doesn't speak English. He's Polish but is fluent in German, in which Janet is able to communicate with him while Ursula starts teaching him English.

They learn his name is Andrea and later that he plays the violin extremely well (as well as Joshua Bell, who is heard on the soundtrack). If they read the press kit, they would discover he is Jewish and was fleeing Poland for America when he was washed overboard. A clueless viewer can't fill in all these blanks.

A kind of rivalry develops between the sisters over Andrea. Ursula's interest, though hopeless, is romantic, while Janet's is more maternal. When his broken ankle heals and he's able to get about on his own, they find themselves jealous of any interests Andrea has outside their house. They're still a few steps removed from Kathy Bates in Misery, but if they weren't English, they might veer in that direction.

Their biggest perceived threat is a visitor to the town who's the only person in sight besides Andrea who's under 50. What's more, Olga (Natascha McElhone) is the sister of a renowned concert violinist. Our only clue to her nationality comes from one of the sisters: "Olga is a Russian name." Even the press kit can't decide whether she's Polish-German or Polish-English.

If Andrea left any relatives behind or has anyone expecting him in America, he makes no effort to contact them. He speaks longingly of America, but with no money for his passage, he makes no serious effort to leave.

Weeks, perhaps months pass with no serious break in the new routine. When something finally happens, it's with unwarranted abruptness to give the film some sort of a climax.

Dench earns her top billing in the more complex and emotional role, while Smith offers strong support without resorting to the hamminess that's marred some of her recent performances.

The English have a way of rendering period pieces as if they could go back in a time machine for location shooting. Ladies in Lavender is in that grand tradition. Only in the storytelling is it a letdown.