A labour of love project for director Bruce Beresford, Ladies In Black is a film 25 years in the making for the veteran helmer of such cinema classics as Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant and Puberty Blues. Whilst the story at hand never entirely travels to destinations unforeseen, Beresford and co-writer Sue Milliken – working off Madeleine St John’s 1993 prose The Women In Black – lace the film with a charm and an old-fashioned shamelessness that masks any feelings of predictability one may experience when viewing this sprightly production.
Set during the sunny summer days leading up to Christmas in 1959 Sydney, Ladies In Black centres around the titular darkly-dressed femmes of department store Goode’s, most specifically young Leslie (Angourie Rice, the Perth-born teenager already with a serious pedigree of high-profile projects to her name), or Lisa as she wishes to be known, a mousy intellectual-type who takes a Christmas casual job as a sales assistant whilst she nervously awaits her exam results. Leslie is far too bright a girl to be worried about whether or not she’ll get into University, but the insistence of her father (a thankfully subdued Shane Jacobson) that “no daughter of mine is going to University” means her aspirations of attending are dimmer than they ought to be.
Though confident in her intellect – she even passes on Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina to her superior at work (a wonderful Rachael Taylor, imbuing her character with a hint of naivety) – Leslie’s shifts provide valuable lessons in other forms of education, namely matters of culture. The stern-looking but warm-hearted Magda (Julia Ormond) proves Leslie’s most valuable teacher, the European import (or “reffo” as they’re referred to – remember this is 1950’s Australia) who oversees the haute couture section of Goode’s taking her under her ever-so-stylish wing and grooming her in ways that’ll prove valuable come her independent travels via university.
With the topic of refugees and their “temporary” housing still a hot button in the news, Ladies In Black‘s quiet commentary on the benefits of immigration serves this otherwise airy film a layer of gravitas that many audience members may not be expecting. That’s certainly not to imply Beresford’s dramedy is heavy on the political commentary, but it proves a neat counterbalance to the melodrama of such sub-plots as fellow shopgirl Patty (Allison McGirr) and the worry of where her wandering husband has disappeared to or the feelings of insecurity Leslie’s mother (Susie Porter) has over her daughter’s new-found confidence.
Whilst everyone involved deliver enjoyable, if not obviously theatrical performances throughout, it’s Rice that ultimately has the film’s heart in her hands. Her particular character arc will never be praised as original, but the young starlet’s organic screen presence sees her hold her own amongst an ensemble of more seasoned players (Noni Hazelhurst, Ryan Corr and Nicholas Hammond, just to name a few) with an ease that proves effortless beyond her years.
About Ladies In Black
Set in the summer of 1959, when the impact of European migration and the rise of women’s liberation is about to change Australia forever, a shy schoolgirl (Lisa) takes a summer job at the prestigious Sydney department store, Goode’s. There she meets the “ladies in black”, who will change her life forever.
Ladies In Black (PG) is screening in Australian theatres from 20th September 2018.