Although Charles Dance has appeared in more than 150 films and television productions, he is perhaps best known to younger audiences as the ruthless patriarch Tywin Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-19).

Born in Worcestershire, England in 1946, Dance studied graphic design at art school in Leicester but eventually was drawn to acting, which led him to the Royal Shakespeare Company. His breakthrough came in 1984, when he played the part of Guy Perron in The Jewel in the Crown for Granada TV.

The Inn at the Edge of the World, which will be the second feature film that Dance has directed, is currently in pre-production. Based on the award-winning book by Alice Thomas Ellis, it’s a drama about five people who respond to an advertisement to escape Christmas and all its enforced jollity in London and retreat to an Inn of the West coast of Scotland.

Dance’s first time behind the camera came in 2004 with Ladies in Lavender, which prompted this December 15, 2005 phone interview with DVD Town’s James Plath.

Ladies in Lavender stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as two sisters who become enthralled with a mysterious foreigner who washes up on the beach of their 1930s Cornish seaside village. They tend to him and soon learn that he has a special talent: the violin. He awakens feelings in the sisters that they haven’t felt for years, feelings that are complicated when a vacationing Russian woman takes an interest in the man and threatens to spirit him away. Ultimately, though, his effect on people is far-reaching. Just as he touched the sisters, he brings about a transformation in the villagers, who become not just accepting of the stranger, but eventually claim him as one of their own.

I thought that Ladies in Lavender was a charming film, a beautiful film . . .

Thank you.

. . . but I couldn’t help thinking if the genders were reversed and it was two septuagenarian brothers who became enamored with a beautiful twenty-something woman they rescued from the sea, and if one of them behaved as Judi Dench did—however innocently—they would have been branded “dirty old men.” I was wondering if you were conscious of this double perceptive standard while you were writing the screenplay or directing the film.

To be honest, Jim, it didn’t occur to me. It didn’t enter my head at all, actually . . . because it’s a kind of fairy tale, the story, rather like all the other stories in this collection of short stories that I took it from. They all have a fairytale-like quality, you know, and there is a kind of innocence in fairy tales. And the feelings that go on in Judi Dench’s character are kind of many and various: they’re maternal, they’re kind of physical but not in a lecherous way, it’s love . . . you know, his presence awakens so many things in her, but the story doesn’t take it any further, and I didn’t intend to take it any further. And if the audience thinks that if he’d stayed and if perhaps the ages were a little different it might have gone further, then that’s up to the audience. But what you see is what happens, and that’s what you get. I didn’t think along the lines of “What if?”

Charles Dance

So there was no real change, then, from the original story to accommodate two older women, as opposed to the fortysomethings that were in the short story?

Well, yeah, I kind of blew the story up a fair bit and embellished it in many ways, and so there are things that happen in the film that don’t happen in the story. I changed their age . . . well, I didn’t change their age, actually. I mean, when I read the story, the only people I had in mind were Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. The fact that they are the age that they are—they’re both seventy, which is extraordinary, because they behave like 17 year olds most of the time—the age to me was kind of immaterial. However, if I’d have tried to find two women who could have been able to play those parts and would also have been as bankable, in their forties, which is the age that William J. Locke has them, and then set it in 1936, which I did, rather than the turn of the century, it would have meant that they would have been flappers in the Twenties. And if they were the age that Judi and Maggie are, they would have been too old to have been flappers. That time would have come earlier for them.

I had to update the thing because I wanted to bring the young man back—not physically, but via his music. And I thought, I’ll do it via the wireless. There weren’t wirelesses at the turn of the century, so I put it in the thirties when people did spend a lot of time listening to the wireless, and I thought, well, I can also use that as means of giving information to the audience as to what might be happening in the outside world and just to basically set the time for the audience. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does. You know, I haven’t read the whole story by Locke, but a story that it did remind me of, tremendously, was a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.”

Oh really?

It’s a story about a drowned man who is dead and bloated, but nonetheless still so handsome that he changes the lives of those who find him, and the entire village, in fact—almost having the same effect as this young man does when he performs and the whole town turns out to claim him as their own.

Oh, let me write this down. I must get it and read it.

I don’t remember which one of his collections it’s in, but it’s frequently anthologized.

Thanks very much for that, Jim. A new book to read. Excellent.

Ladies in Lavender is a quiet film—there’s no escaping it—in which character is emphasized over plot, and, as you say, it has these fairytale undertones or overtones, if you will. Basically we have about a five-person cast, because I think the townspeople tend to serve, along with the beautiful coasts and villages of Cornwall, as a collective character we could probably call Atmosphere.

Yeah, absolutely.

I just wondered what your interpretation was of the dynamic of those five characters, and if those characters and their interpersonal relationships evolved over the course of the film . . . perhaps even in a way that might have surprised you.

Smith and Dench in a scene from Ladies in Lavender

Not in a way that surprised me, certainly, other than Judi and Maggie continually surprise one with what they pull out of the bag, and the extent of their talent when you see it working, it’s quite extraordinary. I kind of gave or tried to give all of the principle characters a journey, each in their own way, and I think it’s pretty clear the journey that Maggie and Judi’s characters take . . . and I hope it’s clear, really, in all of their cases.

The one character that is very much underwritten in Locke’s story is the character of Olga. Inasmuch as the ladies are considerably younger than they are in the film, Olga’s character is a kind of 21-year-old flighty, pretty girl, basically, and I wanted a woman who was going to be a threat not because of her youth and prettiness, but because of her relative maturity and her beauty, and also her kind of Bohemian-like quality—which is why I asked Natascha McElhone to do it, because I think she embodies all of those things. And the journey that she takes is perhaps less apparent than the journey any of the other ones do, because principally, her motives are purely altruistic when it comes to Daniel Brühl’s character.

There was a point when I thought, you know, should this relationship go a little further, and I thought No, no, no, no, I don’t want any of these relationships to go any further, despite Daniel Brühl’s character perhaps wishing it might. But her character does represent the kind of wicked fairy in the fairy tale . . .

Which was a line from the film.

Yes, and indeed a line from the book. And I thought it would be really quite interesting to have a devastatingly beautiful woman being the wicked fairy, rather than a rather obnoxious, perhaps plain woman . . . and I think she does all that. And the other thing about fairy stories, you just have to believe. At the center of any fairy story is faith. You just accept it. “Once upon a time . . . da da da da da da.” I kind of gave myself a problem by setting it in a particular time and having very particular bits of information come out of that wireless.

And it’s grounded in realism as well.

Well exactly, and I tried only to answer the questions that were absolutely necessary to answer. Like, people said to me, “We want to know where he comes from and where was he going and what happened . . .?” Well, it’s not important—for me, anyway.

Nor was it to Marquez, either.

I mean, I gave Daniel a backstory, as it were, and all of the actors’ backstories just to help them with their characterizations, but not include any of that information in the screenplay. I said to Daniel, “Listen, I think this kid is Jewish,” I think because of the pogroms that were going on in Poland long before the Third Reich started marching into there. There has always been a very high degree of anti-Semitism in Poland. It was coming to a head in the mid- to late-thirties, and I said, “I think this kid decides to work his passage on a ship to New York and try to earn a living in New York as a musician,” and that was the kind of backstory I gave him. “And there was a storm on the ship, you’re washed overboard, and for some extraordinary reason you don’t drown and you’re washed up on this beach in Cornwall.” And I just gave that as a kind of aid to his performance. But it’s not relevant to the story, you know?

I think it’s interesting when you talk about a young woman as being the witch of the fairy tale, because it kind of takes the notion of the “witch” into the abstract. It forces people to reconsider what it means to be a witch in a tale.

Yeah, oh sure.

I was wondering, though, were there any fairy tale elements or conventions that you entertained early on, but finally didn’t include in the shooting script or in the final cut of the movie?

Well, I did think about working with Peter Biziou, the cinematographer, to actually come up with a look that would make it kind of dreamlike. In the story, when we first go into the story, the story opens in the sisters’ bedroom and everything is white. The floor is painted white, the walls are painted white, the coverlets on the bed are white, they’re wearing white night dresses, the light is very bright. Do you know? But I thought, well, no, this is going to take us into a whole other area. It’s just not going to serve the story at all. I just think that really the only fairytale elements that I was concerned with keeping were one, to encourage the audience to have just belief in it and not to bother about unanswered questions, to feel comfortable with ambiguity . . . .

To believe.

To believe. And two, to actually use the quality of the light in Cornwall, which is quite unique. You don’t find it anywhere else in England. There is a shimmering quality to the light, even in the darkest grayest winter’s day. It’s extraordinary down there, and it’s very difficult to imitate it or emulate it anywhere else. I was actually thinking of going to Wales or to Ireland or to the Isle of Man, which sits in the middle of the Irish Sea. If you’re in any way depressive, don’t ever go anywhere near the Isle of Man, because you’ll want to hang yourself from the nearest beam or slit your wrist or something [laughs]. It’s a frightful place. But, there is a financial deal with the Isle of Man. You get 25 percent for your budget if you shoot 50 percent of the schedule there, so that’s an attraction for people to go there. But I could never make the Isle of Man look like Cornwall. So instead of trying to do what Locke suggested—which would have made it a kind of dreamlike story—I just thought, we’ll kind of capitalize on the quality of light that’s in Cornwall and use that and use the content of the story and hopefully the fairytale elements in all of those things will kind of find its way out of the screen and into the audience.

Quite a number of lines in the film allude to fairy tales. I’ve read other reviews, and it seems that some critics just didn’t get it. If you shoot for a fairy tale and it’s perceived as a straight realistic film, the danger, I think, is that your film can seem overly minimalist, overly simplified, and, as you say, innocent. Did you find that that was a concern, or were you surprised by some of the reactions?

Well, I knew that despite everybody in the film industry continually striving to please all the people all the time, it’s something one can never really achieve. I’ve read rave reviews, I’ve read dismissive reviews, I’ve read great reviews, I’ve read mediocre reviews, and a lot of the points are valid. Quite a lot of the points are not valid. What I do know is that it has attracted a quite considerable audience and has done extremely good business and has persuaded people to leave their homes and go to the cinema when they otherwise would rather stay at home because there’s nothing much in the cinema that they would want to see. And I’m talking about the spending power of the gray pound, the gray dollar, or the gray Euro, as it’s come to be called. I’m not really bothered by reviews, Jim, to be perfectly honest with you. I mean, obviously one hopes that people are going to like it, but I made this film for an audience, not for a film critic.

Well, that shoots my next question. I was going to ask which of you was the most sensitive one, the writer, or the director?

“Sensitive” in what regard?

To criticism, perhaps, or to having things your own way, to not being able to accept suggestions to the contrary of a direction you’d like to take things . . . or was that never tested?

Dench, Smith, and McElhone

Ahh, well, I worked my way through about 10 drafts, I think, before giving it to Maggie and Judi, and the response that I got from both of them—who’ve read quite a lot of screenplays and plays in their time, are well-read and intelligent women who’ve probably read three times as many screenplays as I have, and I respect their opinion and their taste—and they very much wanted to do it. That kind of encouraged me to stick to my guns and not change it in a way that one or two potential financiers wanted it to be changed. Couldn’t the Olga character be sexier? Couldn’t this happen? You know. The things you usually get asked to put into the screenplay. I basically kind of stuck to my guns and thought, you know, this is the film I want to make, and I hope people like it. And I had a feeling it would do well. I also had a feeling that it would do better in America than it did in England—although it did remarkably well here. It sat on the circuit for 12 weeks, which really surprised everybody very pleasantly.

Is it for cultural reasons that you expected it to do better in America?

I really don’t know, Jim, to be honest with you. What I do know is that there is, most of the time, an English dislike of sentimentality . . . which is something that America is not afraid of. You know, there’s a saying that the English are emotionally constipated and the Americans have emotional diarrhea. Well, somewhere in between there, there’s probably some truth, but I thought this film would attract probably as big if not a bigger audience in America than it did in England, and I gather it has. [Pause] I mean, if you were to ask me what I thought was wrong with the film, we would be here for about two hours.

Really?

Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot I would liked to have done. There’s a lot that I would liked to have done to change its pace at times. But we were up against time, shooting the film. We were dealing with a finite amount of time and a finite amount of money, and gone are the days when you produce the first day’s rushes and financiers say, “This is just fantastic, you can have an extra week, you can have an extra million, and . . . ” no, no, no. We had a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time, and I had to cut quite a lot of scenes along the way—otherwise, we wouldn’t have finished the film—and I shot very economically, you know. I kept coverage to a minimum, and the number of takes were pretty small. I don’t think we went beyond three takes in any shot at any set-up at any time. But there’s about 12 scenes missing from the film, really—relatively short scenes, but scenes that would have given the film a change of pace, slowed it down at times, speeded it up, expanded it. It’s rather too small, for my money. I would have liked it to have been a bit bigger.

Yeah, I understand what you mean. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask how it was to work with the Grand Dames in the same film. And could you talk about how they approached the craft? Similarly? Differently? What was it like to see them at work?

Pretty much the same. They are the most unfussy people. They’ve also known each other for about 50 years, and they sit around between set-ups playing a card game called “Bitch.” They tried to explain the rules of it to me, and I could never really understand it. They are, for my money, the finest actresses of their generation . . . anywhere. They come onto the set, they know their lines. We didn’t really rehearse. Neither of them wanted to rehearse. I didn’t want to rehearse, as an actor for film, actually. We kind of sat around for two or three days. We talked our way through the scenes, made sure that we all had the same object in mind, that their understanding of the characters and the scenes were mine, and then we started work. And they would come onto the set and I would, most of the time, be able to say, “Look, here’s the space. You show me what you want to do, and then I’ll decide how I’m going to shoot it.

There were times, unfortunately, when I would actually have to say, “Listen, I’m going to shoot it this way, I want you to do this, I want you to do that,” and they just do it. And they don’t come along with a personal dietician, with a fitness trainer, with an entourage around them and leaving a trail of nervous breakdowns in their wake. They are part of a company, along with the electricians, the cinematographer, the makeup people, the other actors. They’re part of this company, and they are an absolute joy to work with. I really didn’t have to do much in the way of direction, as such. Most of the time I just kind of watched, open-mouthed, at the extent of their talent and their understanding of the medium, because both of them have come from a much more fulsome theatrical background than a cinematic one—although of late, you know, they’ve both done their fair share of work in front of the camera. But they do come from a theatrical tradition, and one would expect them to be perhaps too big a lot of the time. But their understanding of the medium is such that they just get it right, every single time. They are . . . “awe-inspiring,” is the phrase, I think.

Dance on the set with Dench

“Nuance” is the phrase for me. Every gesture of theirs and every expression speaks volumes compared to another actress or actor.

Yeah, and I deliberately kind of underwrote the thing, because I love scripts that imply things. “Implication” is a favorite word of mine, and I kind of wrote lines that were necessary and didn’t write lines that weren’t necessary, because I just knew the caliber of actor that I was dealing with.

You know, Dench’s attraction to the young man—the young violinist—is crucial to the film, and I was wondering if she was comfortable with the level that it was played at, or if she had preferred to go even more understated, or perhaps go even further into pushing the sexual attraction.

If she was uncomfortable, she didn’t say so at all. I mean, there is a moment that I didn’t suggest to her and I didn’t know she was going to do it. When she’s sitting on the rock and he’s kind of sitting at her feet and he puts his head on her knee, she just leans back and she touches his head—and her hand goes up to her heart. And I tell you, there was an intake of breath from everybody around me. It’s one of those kind of magical moments that said so many things, and I just thought she was absolutely brilliant.

And by not going further in the direction of sexuality, you avoid that whole Mrs. Robinson syndrome so you can attack something more important.

Sure.

Well, I was reminded of a quote from Gertrude Stein, who once remarked, “We are all the same age inside.” I thought of that quote as I was watching this film. It’s kind of haunting.

Very good, Jim. Very good. That’s two things you’ve told me. I didn’t know that quote from Gertrude Stein, so you’ve given me a really great quote and a book I can read.

[Laughs] Well good. I don’t want to just be a taker.

Who do you work for?

I teach English at Illinois Wesleyan University and I’m doing this interview for DVD Town.

Right, right. Well, very lucky students, is all I can say, at Wesleyan University.

Well, I’ve taken up a bunch of your time and covered most of the bases I wanted to. I enjoyed the film, but I do understand what you meant when you said that it felt smaller than you had hoped, because I had the same feeling.

Hmmm, okay . . .

I couldn’t fault it for anything. What was there, I thought was absolutely wonderful. But the thought I had in the back of my mind, finally, was like those Olympic skaters, where ultimately degree of difficulty comes into play . . .

Yeah, yeah.

And I thought to myself, I wonder if this had had just a slighter challenge in difficulty or complexity, it might have pushed it up and made it bigger. But of course, it goes against the fairy tale spirit and structure to do that. So you’re kind of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Absolutely.

I think no one accuses a fairy tale of being too small, and this has the same set-up. As you point out, it has the innocence, it has the element of belief, it has the element of simplicity, and you don’t get detailed character backstories and interactions in fairy tales, but you do get an implied moral question, if not an answer. And certainly, I think the sexuality, and what it means to be a human and to be sexual, and what it means to be welcomed or shunned enters into it.

What did you think of the score?

I thought it was wonderful. A nice complement to the acting.

Yeah, I think so. I met Nigel Hess when he was running the music department of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and this is the first film score he’s done.

Oh really?

Yeah. He’s done work for television before, but he’s never done work for a feature film. And I think he’s come up with an exquisitely beautiful score.

Well, he really captured what you were trying to do.

Yeah, and that mini-concerto, you know, that’s kind of the main theme in both a major and a minor key. It’s a sublime piece of work, and, you know, we managed to get the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at a knockdown price, and Joshua Bell for next to nothing. And the end result is a really rather beautiful piece of music, I have to say.

And it could have been intimidating too, to have to come up with something like that as a thread, when you’re incorporating so many other classical musical geniuses in the soundtrack.

Yes indeed.

Anyway, I congratulate you on the film. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Thank you.

And with that, I suppose I will go back to teaching.

[Laughs] Thank you very much.

(Ladies in Lavender is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime.)