Watching Dench and Smith, dames both and two of the world's finest living actresses, subtly spar as a pair of lonely sisters is the best thing about Ladies in Lavender, and almost enough to make you forget its paper-thin plot and leaden pacing. Almost, but unfortunately not quite, since actor-turned-writer-director Dance sets up a charming premise and then slowly lets the air out of it over the course of 100 minutes, limping to a predictable and pat conclusion.
Dench's Ursula, a spinster, and Smith's Janet, a widow, live together in a quaint British seaside town in 1936. When a mysterious stranger (Bruhl) washes up onshore, they take him in and nurse him back to health, in the process developing an affection for the young man that borders on unhealthy. The Polish stranger, Andrea, doesn't speak English but is a master of the violin, and soon another foreigner, a German woman in town on vacation (Natascha McElhone), is threatening to steal his affections from the sisters.
The film's first half features subtle and bone-dry repartée between Dench and Smith, but as the emotions overtake the humor, the film drags to its obvious end-point. The two actresses bring an air of class to the entire affair, but it's not quite enough to hold things together.