LADIES IN BLACK
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenwriters: Bruce Beresford and Sue Milliken, based on the novel The Women In Black by Madeleine St John.
Runtime: 109 mins.
Australian release date: 20 September 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 27 August 2018.
If you were lucky enough to experience the critically acclaimed Ladies In Black musical which toured the east coast of Australia in 2016, your appetite would have been whetted for the film version. Fortunately, the wait is over but it’s been a long time coming, as evidenced by this fax from director Bruce Beresford to producer Sue Milliken in 1994: "… I have just read a funny and touching Aussie novel by Madeleine St John (who was at uni with me) and I think we should buy it. Please read it and give me your opinion. It’s short, called The Women In Black. About ladies working at David Jones in 1958." It took 24 years but eventually all the elements, and the finance, fell into place. During this time, Milliken and Beresford were working independently on the screenplay; they would exchange drafts but never actually worked together in the same physical space, and this process went on for years. Milliken explains, “Bruce wrote the last pass, which made some minor changes, and only to make the film keep moving did we add something or take something away. It was perhaps an odd sort of collaboration, but it worked for us.” And it’s definitely worked for the film. Ladies In Black is simply fabulous and is a strong contender for the best Australian film of the year. It takes place in 1959, when Australia had been under the influence of a conservative government for over a decade and the post-war boom was coming to an end, but there was a feeling of change brought about by immigration and the role of women in the workplace. Both are issues that are still relevant to society today. As Milliken says, “We are in an era where women are coming to the forefront, where intolerance to immigrants and refugees is again a part of our experience, globally, and so suddenly this book written 25 years ago is incredibly timely.”
Set in Sydney against the backdrop of glorious footage of the harbour and its environs, we are introduced to the ladies of Goode’s department store (a fictional version of DJ’s), where the saleswomen must dress uniformly, resplendent all in black. Fay (Rachael Taylor), a former cocktail waitress, and Patty (Alison McGirr), who’s married and desperate to fall pregnant, are working in the dress department when they are presented with 16-year-old Lisa (Angourie Rice), who is to assist them over the summer until she gets her university entrance results. Soon though, Lisa is taken under the wing of Magda (Julia Ormond,) a Slovenian émigré who’s in charge of ‘Model Gowns’, the store’s high fashion boutique. Magda regards Australian girls as ‘rough around the edges’, lacking European charm, so she proceeds to tutor young Lisa in the finer points of style and grace. At home, Lisa’s supressed mother (Susie Porter) embraces her daughter’s future and encourages her to go to university, but her father (Shane Jacobson), typical of Aussie men of the period who expected their dinner on the table when they got home from the pub, declares that “no daughter of mine will ever go to university.” All the various women’s stories, and their men’s, emerge as the plot progresses and their lives open up, intertwining and connecting; a credit to the script’s long gestation.
As far as jobs for women went, to be employed at what was undoubtedly the best store in town was deemed a privilege and the women were expected to uphold certain standards, but the work also led them to discover their independence. Concurrently, Australia was beginning to walk down the path of multiculturalism as more migrants were contributing to, and inexorably altering, the predominately Anglo-Saxon culture. The film subtly shows how these issues were pertinent in the period. Beresford has beautifully captured the mood of the late ‘50s and covered the social themes with dignity, while not ramming them down our throats. Credit must be given to the superb production and costume design by Felicity Abbott and Wendy Cork respectively. Ladies In Black looks like it might have been made in 1959! The ensemble has been perfectly cast: Rice is endearing as the young cypher for Australia, starting to find her place in the world; Taylor and McGirr bring depth to Fay and Patty, two young women dissatisfied with their traditional female roles who are not afraid to change the status quo; Ormond’s Magda is formidable while allowing us to glimpse the hard times hidden behind her attractive façade; Ryan Corr and Vincent Perez are highly convincing as two urbane Hungarian refugees; and the scenes at Lisa’s family home with Porter and Jacobson are a treat - he aptly captures the laconic Aussie bloke! ‘The Emerald City’ is at its best-dressed and harks back to a time when there were trams in the city and the inhabitants maintained a healthy disregard for their neighbours down south in Melbourne. Ladies In Black is great fun and a wonderful adaptation of Madeleine St John’s slim volume.