This comedic/dramatic character piece is drawn from Madeleine St. John’s 1993 novel, and features fine performances from a lovely cast while it paints a picture of 1959 Australia that’s certainly romanticised but proves so damn charming it doesn’t really matter.
Co-writer and director Bruce Beresford and St. John (who died in 2006) were uni friends, and he and his co-writer/producer Sue Milliken have been trying to make the book into a movie for years. It seems that this filming was finally pushed into production after the success of the 2015 musical version. Perhaps you can pick where the songs could have been here, and you might also suspect that the characters would have been a touch coarser in actuality, but this is intended as an audience-pleasing entertainment, so almost all that true-blue ugliness is left out.
In a past Sydney brought to life by FX and careful cinematography, a group of women work at Goode’s department store and prepare for the Christmas rush. Under the watchful eye of Miss Cartwright (Noni Hazelhurst), 16 year old Lisa (Angourie Rice) is assigned to help, as the older Pattie (Alison McGirr) and Fay (Rachael Taylor taking time off from Netflix’s Jessica Jones) tend to sometimes snobby customers in the kind of fancy set-up that simply doesn’t exist in the retail world any longer.
Young Lisa (real name Lesley) is awaiting her exam results and is shunned a little at first, as she reads Anna Karenina and talks of becoming a poet or an actress, but soon she joins the exotic Magda (Julia Ormond) in the fancy frock section and a real friendship is forged. Ormond shines as the Slovenian Magda, who introduces Lisa to her Hungarian husband Stefan (Vincent Perez) and a world of European intellectualism in her Mosman home, which makes Lisa’s parents (Susie Porter and Shane Jacobsen) puzzled and a touch suspicious.
Angourie Rice is wonderful, and her Lisa shares screen time with McGirr’s Pattie (who tries to spice up her marriage years before ‘The Pill’) and Taylor’s Fay, who winds up dating Magda’s Hungarian friend Rudi (Melbournian Ryan Corr). Fay initially worries that he’s a ‘continental’ or even a ‘refo’, but he’s so sweet that she just has to change her mind, right?
Not quite pre-rock-and-roll (we hear Chuck Berry’s 1956 hit Roll Over Beethoven) but definitely pre-second wave feminism, Beresford’s film nevertheless depicts these four women of different ages and backgrounds taking charge of their lives in ways that, just possibly, wouldn’t quite have happened like this in the not-quite-rosy days of 1959. Would Pattie’s husband really be so understanding? Would Lisa’s Dad eventually allow her to go to Sydney University? And would all the ‘real’ Aussies here be quite so friendly to these foreigners, no matter how appealing Magda, Stefan and Rudi might well be?
Rated PG. Ladies in Black is in cinemas now.