Ladies in Black is an absolute charmer of a dramedy – and a whole lot more – focusing on the lives of a group of women working in an upmarket department store in Sydney, 1959. An instant Australian classic.
Veteran Australian director Bruce Beresford is not known for feel-good pieces, but in Ladies in Black he has turned out an all-ages delight of a period flick set in Sydney in 1959 that may just be destined for embrace as a national cinematic treasure. It’s a brilliantly authentic depiction of the time, capturing perfectly an Australia that is all but lost to us. While this in itself makes it an important film, it’s also directly relevant to today, in that it begs comparisons between 1959 and now.
Back then, on the cusp of the socio-cultural bomb that was the Sixties, with the war fading from public consciousness and a new era of prosperity dawning, the entire country was poised for profound change, and the coiled excitement of that prospect comes across here.
Contrasting the promise of the future that filled people with optimism in 1959 with the way things have turned out – well, frankly, it’s heartbreaking in some aspects. While we have clearly progressed significantly in areas such as gender equality, for example, in others, such as attitudes towards refugees, we’ve devolved. And the optimism and hope of then now seems naïve in the cynical, mean-spirited milieu of today.
The focus is a group of women working at Goodes, a prestigious department store. In a terrific scene at the beginning of the film they’re shown arriving at the staff change-rooms, slipping out of civvies into trademark elegant black dresses and heels. It’s a glamorous transformation lent a touch of magic when the lights are switched on in the store and a pianist starts playing to announce the commencement of the business day.
We learn as the film progresses that most of the women who work at Goodes come from modest suburban backgrounds, with the exception of the charismatic and sophisticated Magda (an authoritative Julia Ormond), the manager of the high-end-fashion floor. She and her husband, WW2 refugees from Hungary, live in a tastefully appointed apartment in Mosman, overlooking Sydney Harbour. They are Continental sophisticates, multi-lingual, well-versed in literature and music, food and wine savvy. Magda has big ambitions to start her own exclusive fashion store.
Sales ladies Fay (Rachael Taylor) and Patty (Alison McGirr) are part in awe of Magda, part suspicious of her Otherness (understandable – the Australia of 1959 was, of course, insular in the extreme). They watch on with raised eyebrows when Magda befriends bookish bespectacled schoolgirl Lisa (Angourie Rice), a picture of sweetness and innocence who’s just completed her Leaving and has scored a summer holiday job at Goodes.
When Magda invites Lisa home for dinner one weekend, it opens the door to an exotic new world for her. Under Magda’s mentorship, she ditches her specs, changes her hair style and takes on a new more fashionable look.
Lisa becomes a catalyst for change for her parents (Suzie Porter and Shane Jacobsen). She also functions as a bridge between Magda and her workmates, particularly Fay, who somewhat reluctantly accepts Magda’s invitation to a New Year’s Eve party, where she is set up with dashing young Hungarian bachelor Rudi (Ryan Corr), who asks her out, introduces her to French cinema and Liszt, and…well, let’s just say the Sixties are off to a good start for these two.
I’ve noted some idiotic criticisms of the film from reviewers with no personal experience of the era who squirm at the parading of Australiana (eg: “strewth” in the dialogue, lamingtons being served at an afternoon tea, and the Shane Jacobsen character, whom they see as a cringeworthy Ocker dope). Thing is, kids, none of this was naff back in 1959! It’s the way it was!
In my view, Ladies in Black is note-perfect in its depiction of the era. I say that as someone who was around then. The language is spot on and so are the “old Australian” accents (ie: no contemporary vowel sounds or intonations, although Angourie Rice gets close on a couple of occasions). And, thank God in the highest, there are no colloquial slip-ups (as in “moving forward” or “let’s do this”).
The food is as it was: chops and three veges on the dinner table, and yes, lamingtons served up at afternoon teas. The characters ring true to the time, while mostly avoiding caricature or stereotype. Ditto the home furnishings. And fashion. And attitudes. Indeed, if there is a more authentic representation of a past era in Australian film, I haven’t seen it.
That said, it is fair to say that Beresford has presented a sanitised version of the Sydney of 1959, but it’s not chocolate-box-sweet. The sexual repression of the day is touched on in a particularly poignant way, and oppression of women is a central theme, although lightly handled. But overall, Beresford has an affectionate take on the era, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Too often today, focusing on the dark side is equated with artistic validity, profundity even.
Ladies in Black is a breath of fresh air. It’s hugely entertaining and stylish, brilliantly performed and shot, funny and moving. This has been a poor year for Australian film, and catastrophic in box office terms – justly so in most cases. Ladies in Black may be the tonic the industry needs. It should have the punters flocking to the cinema, and you should join them, whatever generation you belong to. If you don’t, you’ll be missing something very special.
The film ends with a dinner party at Magda and hubby’s place that brings together the main characters. It’s a scene that looks to an idyllic multicultural future for the country, and finishes with young Lisa responding to a question as to what she wants to do with her life. She declares with the boundless optimism and naivete of youth (and the nation at that time) that she wants to be an actress, or poet, or novelist, or maybe all three, in pursuit of which she’s off to university to study Arts. Figuratively and dramatically, it’s a perfect ending.
As we were exiting the cinema, we overheard a woman groan to her friends: “What a stupid ending!” Her friend concurred, adding in disgust: “Yeah! Finally, a girl gets into university and all she wants to do is something stupid like that.”
Words fail me.
Movie Website: https://www.ladiesinblackmovie.com.au/
Ladies in Black features: Rachael Taylor, Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice, Susie Porter, Ryan Corr, Shane Jacobson, Alison McGirr, Luke Pegler
Director: Bruce Beresford
Writers: Bruce Beresford, Sue Milliken (adapted from the novel by Madeleine St John)
Runtime: 109 min
Australian release date: Julia, Naked at Luna Cinema, Leederville from September 20, 2018
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