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'Ladies' is all dressed up, but goes nowhere

For a certain subsection of the moviegoing public, there is nothing like a Dame: the presence of Maggie Smith or Helen Mirren or Joan Plowright is like a big red ''Grade A Approved" sticker on an art-house ham. In ''Ladies in Lavender," there is nothing but a Dame. All right, there are two of them, which by some Miramaxian calculation probably squares rather than doubles the acting rewards. But not even the skills of Dames Smith and Judi Dench can make this tea strong enough to swallow.

There will be audiences who go for it, God bless them, because the Cornish locations provide the necessary drama and because the 1930s-era sets and costumes and emotions are above all tasteful. Taste, in fact, is the standard and the cross the Widdington sisters bear.

They live in the well-appointed house of their late father, the only man in their lives. Janet (Smith) is the bossy, take-charge elder sibling, and Ursula (Dench) the slightly adrift younger one; if the latter has heard of her randy namesake in D.H. Lawrence's ''The Rainbow" and ''Women in Love," rest assured she wouldn't dare read the books.

Actor-turned-director Charles Dance (''Gosford Park") ably sketches in the genteel pre-World War II setting (he's working from an updated short story by the little-known Edwardian novelist William J. Locke), and then gives us a billowing sea storm that washes an unconscious young man (Daniel Bruhle) ashore. When the castaway awakes between the Widdington's crisp bedsheets, his ankle is broken and Ursula is staring at him with barely disguised devotion.

And there the matter rests for the next hour and a half; the kettle rumbles but it never, ever boils. The young man is a Pole named Andrea and it turns out he's a musical virtuoso -- this seems to surprise him as much as anyone else. He speaks no English and comes from who knows where, since the movie neglects to provide him with a back story or, for that matter, a front or side story. He's only there to dirty up the sisters' psychological doilies.

Thus Janet and Ursula become fiercely protective of their injured ward, especially as it concerns Olga Danilov (Natascha McElhone), a glamorous Russian artist who is vacationing in the area and has a celebrity violinist brother who could help Andrea. The emotional temperature creeps upward by sixteenths of degrees, and Ursula begins snapping at her sister and dropping the crockery with abandon. Dench does this sort of thing well, but Smith does the response -- mouth puckered and eyebrow raised above hairline in mortified disbelief -- better.

Repression, of course, is the great theme of British movies -- from ''Brief Encounter" to ''Remains of the Day" there's the thunder of stiff upper lips cracking under strain. It's generally a good idea to have something happening on the surface, though. Dance hasn't yet figured out how to shape a story; in ''Lavender," he substitutes unfocused observation for event. We learn the town doctor (David Warner) is an old flirt and that the men of the village can really put away the Guinness (and, on occasion, bring it back up); we briefly glimpse a high-spirited young woman whose sexual drive isn't buried under several centuries of class propriety. These are all interesting elements that lack a larger vision to pull them together.

Worse, we never figure out who Andrea is. Likably played by Bruhl, the castaway remains more dramatic device than living, breathing character. And without him truly being there, Dench and Smith are just volleying an imaginary ping-pong ball between them. That's not acting -- that's exercise.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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