Ladies in Lavender as Mandala
by Wanda Avila, Ph.D.
Charles Dance's Ladies in Lavender (2005) has been widely acclaimed for the brilliant performances of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and for the glorious violin solos of Joshua Bell. But the ultimate value of this film lies in its affirmation of meaning in life. Its transcendent vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful places the movie, along with such movies as Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast (1987) and Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957), in that special category of movies that serve as instruments of meditation.
The film is structured in the form of a mandala, and like the circular images that Eastern mystics use as an aid to meditation, the film leads the viewer from experiential reality to the plane of spiritual insight.  Suggesting the circular structure of the film are such images as the fishermen arranged in a semicircle around the sea, mending their nets. Also, the audiences for the violin solo at the end of the movie sit in a semicircle in the concert hall and around the wireless at home. Most significant of all is the repetition of the initial scene at the end of the movie. The scenetwo women walk down the ragged, rocky path that leads to a cove by the sea, dressed in clothing made from the same materialimplies that the story has come full circle. The viewer sees the backs of the women as they set forth, moving from the circumference of the film, toward the sea, wherein the center lies. This scene evokes their (and the viewer's) movement from experience to the spirit, from the exterior to the interior, from form to contemplation, from multiplicity to unity, from space to spacelessness, from time to timelessness.
The movie begins one morning in early summer in the mid-1930s when two elderly spinsters, Misses Janet and Ursula Widdington, see the body of a man washed up in the sandy cove below their house on the coast of Cornwall. He is apparently a survivor of a shipwreck caused by a violent storm the evening before. They later learn that his name is Andrea Marowski and that he is a Polish émigré who was on his way to America, though his past will always remain somewhat mysterious. Because Andre is badly injured, the sisters have him carried up to the spare bedroom in their stone house, which sits on a projecting cliff above the sea. During his recuperation, they vie with each other to provide care to a young man whom they view as a young Greek god or a prince out of a fairy tale. Even their housekeeper, Dorcas, succumbs to the charms of the handsome young man. Toward the end of his convalescence, Andre makes it known that he likes to play the violin, and the sisters procure one from a neighbor.
When Andre is able to walk again, he ventures into the tiny fishing village of Trevannic, where he charms the villagers in the same way that he has heretofore charmed the sisters and Dorcas. During these forays into the village, he encounters a beautiful landscape painter named Olga Danilov, who is on holiday in Cornwall. Because she has a brother who is a world-renowned violinist, she recognizes that Andre, too, is gifted and encourages him to come play for her in the afternoons while she paints his portrait. Olga's interest causes Andrea to begin practicing as he has never done before.
At the end of the summer, Olga takes Andre to London to meet her brother, leaving the sisters bereft. Andre eventually sends them a letter, explaining his departure and urging them to tune into the wireless on the night of his debut on the BBC. The sisters invite the villagers to come hear the concert on their wireless and at the last minute decide to go to London to hear the concert in person, leaving Dorcas to act as hostess to the villagers at home. The movie ends with the sisters in the audience at the London concert hall, and the villagers gathered around the wireless, experiencing reconciliation with life through the transcendent music of Andrea's violin.
Director Charles Dance based much of his film on two stories in Far-Away Stories, by little-known British author William J. Locke.  From the story "Ladies in Lavender," the movie takes its title, characters, and essential plot, but Dance has taken some liberties with the story and has elaborated on it. For example, Dance has aged the two key characters, who were only in their late forties in the story. He has also updated the short story from the turn of the last century to 1936, so as to bring Andrea back to the village via the radio, or the wireless as the radio was then called, and to incorporate allusions to the coming of World War II.  The film also takes from the first story in the volume, "The Song of Life," which tells of a musician who believes it has been his mission in life to impart the "song of life" through his music. Both "Ladies in Lavender" and "The Song of Life" provide much illuminating commentary on the various scenes in the film.
The mandala typically consists of a multiplicity of images or geometric figures arranged in circles around a central point, which is the central vision, the goal of the human quest for meaning. The various images represent the milestones on the path to achieving and assimilating that vision, as well as the obstacles that lie in the way. Ladies in Lavender is constructed of three major circlesrepresenting the home, the village, and the concert hallshowing Andrea's development as an artist. The first circle contains images of Andrea's convalescence under the maternal administrations of the sisters and Dorcas. The second circle contains Andrea's experience in the village and of his encounters with Olga. The third circle shows Andrea's emergence as an artist and the impact of his music on the three women and on the villagers.
First Circle: The Uroboros
In the first circle, Janet and Ursula find Andrea lying unconscious on the beach. His physical state corresponds with his psychological state at this point because he has little sense of self. He has no aim in life, other than a vague desire to go to America. His skill on the violin is not a part of his identity. He has been playing the violin since he was five, as we learn later, but he takes this skill quite for granted. Fiddling is just something he can do, as perhaps another young man might be able to whistle or to turn handsprings. He is almost as much a mystery to himself as he is to others.
Throughout his convalescence in the sisters' spare bedroom, the three women care for Andrea as fairy godmothers might care for an infant prince. They cater to his every need, plying him with delicious teas and delicacies, sitting beside his bed while he sleeps, and later taking him for walks by the sea and in the heather. When Andrea expresses an interest in the violin, they invite Adam Penruddocke, a fisherman, to come play his fiddle for Andrea. After Andrea listens to the fisherman play "The Carnival of Venice," he takes the violin from Penruddocke and plays the tune as it ought to be played, breaking off into some wild czardas at the end, to the astonishment of Penruddocke and of the sisters. Andrea is delighted by the effect his showing off has produced, but Andrea will have to transcend his egotism to achieve stature as an artist.
In caring for Andrea, the three women give him the gift of love. Andrea seems to have had little contact with the feminine before leaving Poland, where he had been "alone in the world, save for an old uncle who lived in Cracow."  For Janet and Ursula, Andrea is the son they never had; for Dorcas, he is one of the sons she had lost to the pitiless sea. With time, Andrea also becomes for Ursula the lover she never had. Although their love is an impure love, tinged with possessiveness and jealousy, Andrea blossoms under this unconditional love and learns to love in return.
Janet and Ursula also teach Andrea to become sensitive to the beauty of the world, especially to the beauty of the sea. The ocean is a powerful symbol of universal life, of both the creative and destructive forces of life, being at once the source of all life and the goal of life, which is death. It is a symbol of the collective unconscious, out of which creativity arises. Its ceaseless movement symbolizes dynamic forces, and the formlessness of its waters symbolizes transitional states between the stable and the formless.  It is fitting then that in various scenes, the women contemplate the sea from the stone parapet built along the edge of the cliff, and that they move Andrea's bed "up to the window, so that the patient could look out on the glory of sky and sea." . As soon as he has recovered sufficiently, they take him down to swim in the sea. That is, they teach Andrea to contemplate the ocean and to immerse himself in it.
The kind of paradisiacal bliss Andrea experiences during his convalescence poses one of the major temptations in the development of the artist: the temptation to renounce one's calling for a life of sensual pleasure. If Andrea cannot move out of this psychological phase, he will spend the rest of his life trying to recreate this euphoric state through drugs or alcohol or sexual promiscuity. His gift as an artist will be squandered in a dissolute life.
All three women intuitively understand the importance of Andrea's moving out of this state and prepare him for going out into the world, the next stage of his development. Ursula teaches him the English that he will need to communicate with the villagers. The two women buy him proper clothing so that when he is able to go about, he will look like "the ordinary young man of the day." 
Dorcas also tries to teach Andrea what she considers the attitude toward work that he will need to take his proper place in village life. One morning, after the sisters have driven off to the village, Dorcas makes Andrea help her peel potatoes, a ruse to give herself the pleasure of his company. Dorcas would never dare do such a thing with the sisters around because they would never allow their little darling be asked to do anything he might find disagreeable. At one point during the potato-peeling scene, Andrea playfully cuts a face in a potato and shows it to Dorcas, who responds sardonically that he should concentrate on peeling the potatoes and abandon his artistic efforts. This comment is more telling than Dorcas understands because it epitomizes the choices available to Andrea: He can live an ordinary life, on the level of peeling potatoes, or he can be an artist.
Although Janet and Ursula, the owners of the house, consider themselves the social superiors of Dorcas, the housekeeper, the three women are closely related at the archetypal level. They are the Three Fates: Klotho, who spins the thread at the beginning of one's life; Atropos, who weaves the thread into the fabric of one's actions; and Lachesis, who snips the thread at the conclusion of one's life. They are also the three Graces, the servants of Aphrodite, who are very fond of music, singing, poetry, and dancing; who bestow on mortals beauty, wisdom, glory, pleasure, joy, and happiness; and who spend much of their life feasting as their presence was essential at the banquets of the gods. Above all, they are the Three MusesAoide (song), Melete (practice), and Mneme (memory)water nymphs who inspire the right evocation of myth in music and dances. At the level of fairy tale, they are, in their positive aspects, three fairy godmothers who give Andrea the gifts of love and beauty, and in their negative aspects, three witches who would imprison Andrea in the ordinary life.
Second Circle: The Ordinary Life
The second circle contains images of Andrea's encounters with the world outside the sisters' house. The danger posed by his experiences in this circle is that he will find life with the villagers, representing the ordinary life, so pleasant that he will never discover his calling as an artist. Perhaps the sisters will send him to school (they will surely never allow him to work as a farmer or fisherman), and he will return to the village as a doctor or teacher and will marry a village girl, never realizing his higher mission in life. At the end of his life, his situation could be like that of Doctor Meade, who boasts to Olga that he, too, is a musician. He explains that he used to play the double bass in his Hospital Orchestral Society, but he had to give up his music, he says, because his wife did not like the noise.
At each of Andrea's key encounters with the village, Olga Danilof, the fourth important woman in this tale, appears to steer him toward his destiny. Long before Olga and Andrea actually meet, Olga has been aware of Andrea. On the morning that Andrea first demonstrated his talent on the violin, Olga had just been passing by, she says. She had stopped to listen and had called out "Encore! Encore!" The sisters, who had gone to the window, had given Olga a most chilly reception, sensing the potential threat the attractive young woman posed for their exclusive hold on Andrea. To her comment on the "gifted" violinist, Janet responded that "Mr. Andrea was too tired to play any more that day." The sisters later commented on how much they instinctively disliked Olga, Ursula comparing her with "the wicked fairy in a story-book." In reality, Olga is more like Andrea's fairy godmother. Later, when Olga sent them a letter asking to meet Andrea, explaining that her brother is a famous violinist, Janet burnt the letter.
Nevertheless, Olga seems determined to become acquainted with Andrea. Their first encounter takes place at the Harvest Festival being held at the village pub. Here, Andrea has some beers with other young men his age and catches the eye of a pretty village girl. Largely to attract her, he takes over the fiddle and begins to play some Polish dance tunes, winning not only her admiration but that of all the merrymakers. This scene represents an advance in Andrea's search for himself in that he is learning that through his music he can give pleasure to others by uniting them in the joyful acknowledgment of their shared humanity. The scene is also important because Olga, applauding enthusiastically, is among the villagers gathered around the stage as Andrea plays. She later introduces herself, giving herself an entrée into Andrea's world, from which Janet and Ursula have hitherto excluded her.
The second meeting takes place as Andrea is playing for Janet and Ursula, as they sit in their sunny garden, knitting, the dainty remains of tea on the table. Again, Olga "just happens" to be passing by. Her visit is very short because Janet and Ursula again give Olga a chilly reception. Before taking her departure, Olga, uninvited, takes a bit of cake from the tea table, and murmurs "delicious." With this brief gesture, she shows her disregard for the life Janet and Ursula intend for Andrea and asserts that she has a different, higher life in mind.
The third and most significant encounter occurs among the fishermen gathered on the beach, mending their nets and selling their fish. Andrea has gone down to talk to the fishermen, in a futile attempt to find a way to America. The camera focuses on Olga standing to the side, looking out to the sea with a pensive expression, like Polyhymnia (the muse of sacred poetry), and holding a long staff, like Urania (the muse of astronomy). Unaware of Olga, Andrea stands on a rocky promontory, looking down at the fishermen mending their nets below. When one of the fishermen throws an eel at Andrea, Olga playfully calls out to Andrea to throw it back at the fisherman. Then as she moves toward Andrea, she retracts her command, saying that one bite from the eel could destroy his career. "But I don't have a career," Andrea protests. To this, Olga answers significantly, "You will have if you practice." (The three original Muses included Melete meaning "practice.")
Later at her cottage, to which Olga has invited Andrea for lunch, she tells Andrea that her brother is Boris Danilof, the world-famous violist. She also tells Andrea that she had sent a letter to the sisters regarding introducing Andrea to her brother and is surprised to hear that they have not told Andrea anything about the letter. She suggests that they are imprisoning Andrea, thus casting them as the wicked witches of the fairy tale, just as they have cast her. This scene ends with Andrea agreeing to make many additional visits to Olga's cottage so that she can paint him while he is playing his violin. Hoping to win the love of this beautiful woman, Andrea begins to practice as never before.
In another significant encounter, Andrea is back at the pub learning to bowl, surrounded by the village men who are taking great delight in teaching the young man this skill so essential to living in the village. Again, Olga just happens by and asks Andrea to come to her cottage the next afternoon, that she has something very important to tell him. When Andrea goes to the cottage the next afternoon, Olga tells him that she has heard from her brother and that they must set off for London immediately. Andrea protests that he has to say goodbye to Janet and Ursula but Olga insists that there is no time and whisks him away.
Upon hearing that Andrea has gone off to London with Olga, the sisters are bereft. In Locke's story, the significance of this event is made explicit: "The stranger woman had come and had taken [Andrea] away from them. Youth had flown magnetically to youth. They were left alone unheeded in the dry lavender of their lives." 
Third Circle: Apotheosis
The third circle contains images of Andrea's triumph in the concert hall, and it is from this circle that the center is perceived. Just as the center is not shown in the drawing of a mandala, the center of this film can only be experienced. Most people in the audiences on both sides of the screen probably perceive the central point during Andrea's playing of the exquisite violin solo in "Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra." The music seems to pour forth a song of praise for the unity of life, for the bonds that connect all human beings with each other, and for all the beauty of the ocean and sky; a song of gratitude for all the love received and felt; a song of reconciliation with the inevitable loss of love and with the coming of old age and death; and a song of acceptance of the jealousy, envy, distrust, and possessiveness that sever bonds between human beings and of wars that destroy the lives of thousands of young men like Andrea. All are merged in a vision of the totality of life in this glorious violin solo.
For Andrea and Ursula, it is suggested, the central point came earlier. In the story from which the film takes its title, we are told that Andrea returned home "one late afternoon, after spending the day playing his violin to dolphins and waves and things some miles off along the coast" with his face flushed and a new light burning in his eyes.  This passage seems to provide a commentary on the scene in the movie in which Andrea stands on a rocky promontory in early evening, looking out on the shining sea and playing his violin. Perhaps this is the point at which Andrea receives his revelation.
The precise nature of Andrea's revelation is perhaps described in Locke's story "The Song of Life," where another musician receives a "tremendous inspiration" as a young man, when he hears what he calls the song of life:
It was life, indestructible, eternal. It was the seed that grew into the tree; the tree that flourished lustily, and then grew bare and stark and perished; the seed, again, of the tree that rose unconquerable into the laughing leaf of spring. It was the kiss of lovers that, when they were dead and gone, lived immortal on the lips of grandchildren. It was the endless roll of the seasons, the majestic, triumphant rhythm of existence.
This musician realizes that he has "a divine message" to proclaim to the world the song of life itself, a cosmic chant, to tell of things as only music can tell of them, and as no musician had ever told of them before. 
Ursula seems to have found her central point on the night after Andrea has disappeared from her life, having been carried off to London by Olga. (Here again, the story provides a useful adumbration on a scene in the movie.) Unable to sleep, Ursula had gone to Andrea's empty room. Leaning on the sill of the open window, she had looked out on the sea:
Sooner or later, she knew, would come a letter of explanation. She hoped Janet would not force her to read it. She no longer wanted to know whence he came, whither he was going. It were better for her, she thought, not to know. It were better for her to cherish the most beautiful thing that had ever entered her life. For all those years she had waited for the prince who never came; and he had come at last out of fairyland, cast up by the sea. She had had with him her brief season of tremulous happiness. If he had been carried on, against his will, by the strange woman into the unknown whence he had emerged, it was only the inevitable ending of such a fairy tale.
Like Andrea, Ursula is moved to act on her experience: "Thus wisdom came to her from sea and sky, and made her strong. She smiled through her tears, and she, the weaker, went forth for he first time in her life to comfort and direct her sister." 
At the end of the concert, the sisters enter the reception in Andrea's honor, where Andrea is delighted to see them. In response to his question as to how they came, Ursula explains that although Janet had wanted to drive, they have come on the train, which was Dorcas's idea. This small detail suggests that there has been a change in the relationship of the three women. Janet is no longer the dominant one in the household, the one who makes the decisions and gives orders to the younger sister and lowly housekeeper. Rather, the implication is that their love of Andrea and the perception of meaning in life excited by Andrea's music has transformed their lives. Hereafter, they will live as equals, bound by bonds of love.
As the sisters leave the concert hall, the viewer sees their departing backs, as they move from the center back to the circumference, from the interior to the exterior, from contemplation to form, from unity to multiplicity, from spacelessness to space, from timelessness to time. And in the final scene, the sisters, dressed just as they were in the first scene of the movie, walk down the cliff toward the sea, moving from the circumference back to the center.
© Wanda Avila, Ph.D. 2005. All rights reserved.
1. Mandala Symbolism, C.G. Jung, from CW9, Part 1, Princeton University Press, 1972, p. 3.
2. Far-Away Stories, William J. Locke, John Lane Company, N.Y., 1922
3. "The History of the Project," in Press Notes at the Ladies in Lavender Official Website, http://www.ladiesinlavenderthemovie.com.
4. "Ladies in Lavender," in Far-Away Stories, p. 53.
5. A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot, Philosophical Library, NY, pp. 230-31 and p. 268.
6. "Ladies in Lavender," p. 57.
7. Ibid, p. 65.
8. Ibid, p. 69.
9. Ibid, p. 65.
10. "The Song of Life," in Far-Away Stories, p. 15.
11. "Ladies in Lavender," pp. 69-70.