Based on the book “The Ladies in Black” by Madeleine St.John
Director: Bruce Beresford
Juila Ormond: Magda
Rachael Taylor: Fay
Angourie Rice: Lisa
Ladies in Black is set in Sydney in the summer of 1959, against the backdrop of Australia’s cultural awakening, breakdown of class structures, and liberation of women. It tells the coming-of-age story of suburban schoolgirl Lisa, who while waiting for her final high school exam results with dreams of going to the University of Sydney, takes a summer job at a large department store. Here she works side-by-side with a group of saleswomen who open her eyes to a world beyond her sheltered existence, and foster her metamorphosis.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Madeleine St John, Ladies in Black is an alluring and tender-hearted comedy drama about the lives of a group of department store employees in 1959 Sydney.
As an Australian, you’d think I’d be more aware of the goings on in my local film industry, but Aussie produced films have never captured my imagination the way I feel they should. That’s not to mean I’ve never come across some films I generally liked. Red Dog, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Sapphires, Ten Canoes and Bran Nue Dae were all very enjoyable and in their own way, told the stories of those who sadly are deprived of their individual voices in the reality of Australian society.
Which is why I had a slight conundrum with Ladies in Black. The theme of femininity in the Australian suburbs of the 1950’s is explored quite well and it goes hand-in-hand with the romanticised, idealistic way in which Sydney is painted, constantly sunny, which makes sense since the film is placed in late December into early January.
It’s not so much a major problem as it is a small issue I have with the film because I was left with a nagging feeling there were things being unsaid that should’ve been brought to light. The 1950’s was a revolutionary time for Australian immigration, specifically from the areas of Europe struggling with political disputes, or something along the lines of a food shortage. Many immigrants came here because Australia was (and still is) a safe haven in which to start again. The already established Caucasian population was wary of the new arrivals, which as you can imagine, lead to racial tension and suspicion.
Through the characters of Magda and Rudi, we do get some of the perspectives of the new immigrants and the reactions from the “white” population, but it never goes deeper than teasing and whispering behind hands. I’ve never read the book, but I can’t help but wonder if this theme was brushed aside in the film adaptation to focus more on the trials of womanhood.
Aside from this, I did in fact enjoy Ladies in Black. It was well-paced, the humour was light and enjoyable, the music was relevant to the era and set the tone nicely and it was fun to see different depictions of an Aussie Christmas. The most pleasant thing about it was the lack of any antagonist. These were all just normal people, living normal lives, making normal mistakes and working through them as a normal person would. The trials are believable and the triumphs are small, but well-earned.
So if you’re looking for a down-to-earth film that’s relaxing to watch and might bring hints of nostalgia, then I feel comfortable about recommending Ladies in Black to you. Grab a bottle of wine and chill for a couple of hours.
3.5 coat-hangers out of 5