The Ladies in Black

THE LADIES IN BLACK. Starring: Julia Ormand, Angourie Rice, Rachael Taylor, Alison McGirr, Nonie Hazelhurst, and Ryan Carr. Also starring Shane Jacobson and Susie Porter. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Rated PG (Mild coarse language). 109 min.

This film is a screen adaptation of Madeline St. John’s best selling 1993  novel, “The Women in Black”. It tells the story of a group of feisty women, who are  employees of a clothing store in Sydney, in the summer of 1959. A musical version of the book has previously toured Australia to popular acclaim.

Bruce Beresford who directed the film is one of Australia’s foremost film directors, having previously brought to the screen “Breaker Morant” (1980), the much awarded “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), and “Mao’s Last Dancer” (2009). His “Breaker Morant” is regarded widely as one of the classic films in Australian cinema history. The film is set in and around Sydney at a fictional department store called “Goode’s” that suggests David Jones, and at times Mark Foys - two of Sydney’s must-purchase stores for women of the time.

The world of the late 50s and early 60’s was one that saw a rise in the spirit of feminism in Australia and one that was also accompanied by a strong influx of European migrants, the majority of whom were escaping a depressed war-torn Europe. The migrants brought needed skills into the country, and this is a film that appreciates them.

In the movie, Lisa (Angourie Rice) is waiting for her high school results, while dreaming about going to the University of Sydney. In the interim, she takes a job in the ladies’ fashion department of “Goode’s”, and comes under the influence of a group of talented women, who are strong advocates for freedom of women and gender equality. The group opens Lisa’s eyes to issues she cares about.

The manager of the store’s high fashion department is Magda (Julia Ormand), and Ormand  delivers a wonderfully vibrant performance as a post-war refugee, who becomes a person of considerable influence on Lisa’s life. Lisa is also influenced by her colleague-sales girls, Patty (Alison McGirr), and Fay (Rachael Taylor). Noni Hazelhurst commandingly plays the store’s floor supervisor, and Ryan Carr plays Fay’s love interest.

Under the influence of the Ladies in Black, Lisa grows from a retiring girl into a mature young woman, who thinks independently for the first time about women and their role in Society. Her passage to adulthood makes her an agent of change for the people around her, including her parents (Shane Jacobson and Susie Porter) . She awakens them to possibilities they didn’t know existed.

This is a warm, good-feel movie set in Australia and about Australia, that elicits strong feelings of nostalgia and déjà vu. It is quintessentially Australian, pro-continental, and Sydney-centric. It is a joyful film with cultural bite about an era in Australia that experienced significant change. Under Beresford’s controlled direction, the issues it raises are themes that have contemporary relevance, and many will see them as reflecting Australia’s current political concerns. Musical interludes thread through the film in visual style that shows the film’s allegiance to the stage version of the book that went before it. The film presents a positive mix of respect for women, cultural awareness of what immigration positively means for Australia, and the package is tied nicely together by images of high fashion, and social style.

This is probably Bruce Beresford’s most commercial movie to date. The nature of the film, however, means that its political-social bite is somewhat more palatable than penetrating. The film’s foray into escapism and nostalgia - pleasant and enjoyable though it is - inevitably lessens the dramatic bite that otherwise might have been. But Beresford has delivered a movie that is highly enjoyable, and hugely entertaining.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Sony Pictures

Released September 20th., 2018

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