Charles Dance’s début feature is an impressive achievement. Quality abounds in the stellar cast, the magnificently detailed production design, and the knowing, sensitive cinematography of Peter Biziou and Ed Rutherford. But the real star is the music (Joshua Bell’s maturing brilliance is a pleasure in every bar) with its power – when presented honestly – to wash away anger, intolerance and sooth unrequited love.
Janet and Ursula Widdington (Maggie Smith and Judi Dench respectively) share twin beds and a house full of memories in a Cornish seaside village where they and the richly characterized townsfolk go about their business and, occasionally, meddle in the affairs of others in a world between wars.
Following a particularly violent storm, Ursula spies a body on the beach and the pair scurry down to ascertain whether a morgue or hospital should house it. Barely breathing and suffering a broken ankle, it’s love at first wave. And, with no customs to clear, the handsome foreigner, Andrea Marowski (Daniel Brühl, charming at every turn) is hoisted into their spare room to convalesce and learn English under the oh-so-attentive care of the love-starved women.
Based on a story by William J. Locke, Dance’s screenplay is a marvel of patient narrative and gentle wit. To foil the near saccharine adoration of the sisters, he inserts Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes, magnificent in her range of _expression) as the no-nonsense housekeeper who is equally adept at ordering a dairy herd out of her path or stuffing a chicken like it owed her 3 guineas.
Soon the film resembles My Fair Lady as Ursula teaches Marowski (a Polish musician, “Just as well he isn’t German,” muses Janet with a tone that convincingly foreshadows the fate of her late husband) a new language by turning his bedroom into a labelled dictionary. But there’s really only one phrase she wants to hear.
Even as the girls begin to argue over their charge (“I saw him first,” decries Ursula), the sub-plot of a mysterious Russian painter (Natascha McElhone) setting up her easel in a nearby cottage is launched. She manages to frustrate everyone: the Angels of Mercy fear the beautiful artist (who speaks fluent German, giving her a communication advantage with the bilingual violinist); the village doctor (David Warner) prescribes himself a dose of her charms but can’t get her to take his medicine; Marowski hopes that secretly posing for her, violin in hand, will lead to her bed but has to settle for a musical elopement to London.
And what music there is: from country reels to the perennial variation favourite The Carnival of Venice, Marowski fiddles while the sisters burn, bringing the entire village – like the Pied Piper with a Stradivarius – under his spell. The numerous playing sequences make little attempt to persuade that Marowski is actually playing, but subtle bits, such as some broken bow hair being stripped away, add a different kind of verisimilitude.
Then, as he makes a full recovery, Ursula falls victim of her own fantasies and, risking humiliation and scorn, nearly violates the maternal love and trust of their talented charge. Smith and Dench play these truly pathetic scenes beautifully and, as they do throughout, employ quiet understatement, withering glances and real anguish to lift the drama from good to great.
From there, the film seems to slip out of its wonderful promise and surrender its plot to the music. But not before a wonderful segment in which the entire village dresses up to listen to a wireless broadcast by the departed virtuoso in the Widdington manor. Dorcas holds the fort while her employers have tarted up and gone to hear Marowski live. Once the first solo entry is heard the reaction shots speak volumes: the reverent, “simple” townsfolk and the adoring but resigned caregivers subtly mirror the power and emotion of humankind’s most universal language, warming every heart and soul on both sides of the screen.
Dance has given the world more than just a well executed film, he’s provided those lucky enough to see it a few moments of human experience that will resonant within for years to come.