Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bruce Beresford
Stars: Angourie Rice, Rachael Taylor, Julia Ormond, Suzie Porter, Alison McGirr, Shane Jacobson, Ryan Corr, Noni Hazlehurst, Nicholas Hammond, Vincent Perez, Luge Pegler, Celia Massingham.
Sydney, summer of 1959, is the setting for this feel good local romantic drama that plays out against a backdrop of great change to the social fabric of Australia in the post WWII era.
Goodes is the major fashionable department store in Sydney, catering to high end women’s fashion. Sixteen-year old Lisa Miles (Angourie Rice, from the recent The Beguiled, etc) has a Christmas holiday job in the store while she awaits the results of her Leaving Certificate. She has aspirations of studying at university to escape the drudgery of her dull suburban life. However, her gruff father (Shane Jacobson, from Brother’s Keeper, etc) is old fashioned in his outlook and is dead set against his daughter attending university.
But it is Lisa’s interaction with her fellow workers at Goodes that changes her life and opens her eyes to the rich possibilities that life has to offer. Fay (Rachael Taylor, from Red Dog, etc) is looking for love but is having trouble finding an Australian man who measures up to her standards. She eventually is attracted to Rudi (Ryan Corr, from Holding The Man, etc) a Hungarian migrant. The discontented Patty (Alison McGirr, who comes from a background in television soaps like Home And Away, etc) is trapped in a loveless marriage to her hard-working husband Frank (Luke Pegler). She wants to have children, but Frank seems disinterested in the idea, which has put a strain on their marriage.
The ladies who work in the fashion department though are intimidated by the imperious Magda (Julia Ormond, from Sabrina, etc), an immigrant who escaped the horrors of the war, and who is charge of the store’s high-end fashion design line. Magda eventually takes Lisa under her wing and transforms her life.
This lavish local production is a coming of age story that deals with themes of class, social awakening, the liberation of women, the immigrant experience and the changing nature of Australian society. Although set in 1959 the film still has contemporary relevance and resonance. It is also steeped with a nostalgia for the days in which Australia somehow seemed simpler, less complicated, and the pace of life was less hectic. However, the influx of migrants in the post war period was slowly beginning to have an impact on Australia’s customs and traditions.
Ladies In Black is based on the best-selling 1993 novel The Women In Black written by the late Madeleine St John. Bringing the novel to the screen has been something of a passion project for Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford (classic films like Breaker Morant, the Oscar winning Driving Miss Daisy, etc). He has adapted the novel for the screen along with veteran producer Sue Milliken – this is her first screenplay – but they capture the era superbly. Remaining reasonably faithful to the source material, Beresford has produced a very busy narrative that contains lots of incidents and characters, but it inevitably has something of an episodic feel. The dialogue is punctuated with plenty of colloquialisms that will resonate strongly with local audiences.
Beresford’s direction is gentle and languidly paced, but also very stylish. He allows audiences to steep themselves in the nostalgic look of the picture. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to recreate the look and feel of Sydney in the 50s and 60s. The meticulous retro production design from Felicity Abbott (Bran Nue Dae, Moulin Rouge, etc) beautifully recreates the interiors of the department store, while the costumes from Wendy Cook (Predestination, etc) complement the attention to detail. This is visually one of the best-looking local films for quite some time. The warm brightly lit cinematography from Beresford’s regular collaborator Peter James is superb. Some clever use of CGI helps to place long defunct trams back in George Street, which further enhances the authenticity of the period detail.
Rice continues to impress with another solid performance that brings subtle nuances and expressive range to her Lisa. Following the darker tones of the noir-like Brother’s Keeper, Jacobson finds himself more comfortable here, and he brings his usual laid back and laconic style to his role as Lisa’s father. The ubiquitous Suzie Porter plays Lisa’s more sympathetic and supportive mother. Corr brings a light touch to his role as the debonair and cultured Rudi. He gets some of the best one-liners here, and there are hints that his character has a darker history. The ensemble cast includes Noni Hazlehurst (City Homicide, etc), former Spiderman Nicholas Hammond and Vincent Perez, whose characters are largely one dimensional.
The Melbourne Theatre Company recently staged a production of Ladies In Black, which featured original songs from Tim Finn, and somehow that version seemed to have more spark and energy than Beresford’s film. Nonetheless there will be an appreciative audience who will lap up this visually stylish but somewhat dull film.