Ladies in Black – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 24 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Ladies in Black movie

This nicely nostalgic female coming-of-age tale set in a Sydney department store almost sings.

There are times in the light, bright Australian comedy of manners Ladies in Black that you might think: surely, it’s about time someone burst into song.

After all, it has the sunniness, soapiness and obviousness of a musical. There’s a staginess to its main setting, the interior of a late-1950s Sydney department store based loosely on David Jones. The costumes on the mannequins and the people alike are very nice. And strewth, doesn’t young lead Leslie (Angourie Rice), a bookish teen working her pre-varsity summer holidays in the ladieswear section, look like Olivia Newton-John as bobby-soxer Sandy in Grease?

The funny thing is Ladies in Black actually has been a musical. One was adapted from Women in Black, the 1993 debut novel by Madeleine St John, by Tim Finn and Carolyn Burns. It seems to have done okay on the Australian stage.

This film by veteran Aussie director Bruce Beresford, however, is chorus-line-free. He’s remained faithful to the original book by his old university classmate St John and to the prosaic approach he’s brought to two dozen or so features, including the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy.

Just as that Hollywood film gently prodded matters of race, Ladies in Black offers a timid consideration of Australia’s attitude to post-war immigrants from Europe. Young Leslie is taken under the cultured wing of Magda (played by Julia Ormond, seemingly doing a very good impression of Juliette Binoche), who is the Slovenian head of the store’s haute couture section. She and her New Australian friends sometimes get called “continentals” or “reffos” behind their backs. So, when it comes to contemporary resonances about attitudes to immigration, it’s not exactly, well, Nauru.

The film mostly follows the two women’s generally untroubled lives, occasionally turning to two co-workers, the desperate and dateless Fay (Rachael Taylor) and the unhappily married Patty (Alison McGirr), for subplots that provide a little action when the lack of drama at its centre gets a bit much.

It is a slender offering but it’s not without its charms. Especially in the entertaining scenes when Leslie is manipulating her harmless drongo of a father (Shane Jacobson) into allowing the teenager to attend university despite his views on higher education.

It might have been a better film had its female coming-of-age tale acquired a backbone. Or, failing that, had Beresford chucked in a few tunes. But, as it is, Ladies in Black is still enjoyable. Slight and forgettable, perhaps, but its sunny disposition and nostalgic glow prove irresistible.

Video: Sony Pictures Releasing

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

How Whangārei became New Zealand's home of jugger
99256 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

How Whangārei became New Zealand's home of jugger

by Michael Botur

On every second Sabbath, grown men and women armed with foam chase a dog skull around Whangārei’s Kensington Park.

Read more
New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis
100357 2018-12-11 17:18:21Z Health

New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis…

by Indira Stewart

What do you do if your culture treats mental illness like a curse? Bury it deep.

Read more
The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amazon Echo Show stack up?
100317 2018-12-11 15:10:01Z Tech

The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amaz…

by Peter Griffin

A review of the Amazon Echo Show smart speaker.

Read more
Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done' – PM
100265 2018-12-11 10:30:17Z Social issues

Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work …

by RNZ

Grace Millane's death is a reminder of the work that needs to be done to reduce violence directed at women in this country, says the PM.

Read more
Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spice up the next election
99872 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Politics

Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spi…

by Bevan Rapson

The possibility of Kiwis voting on three contentious issues – euthanasia, cannabis and an MMP shakeup – is like crowdsourcing political decisions.

Read more
The bullying allegations show that Parliament needs transparency
100228 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Politics

The bullying allegations show that Parliament need…

by Bill Ralston

As a review stalks bullies in the corridors of power, Bill Ralston writes that abuse thrives in the darkness.

Read more
Mortal Engines is like Star Wars on Middle-earth but lacks memorable characters
100219 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Movies

Mortal Engines is like Star Wars on Middle-earth b…

by Russell Baillie

In a world where cities are humungous all-terrain vehicles, Peter Jackson’s protégé gets bogged down.

Read more
How art therapy is helping stroke victims speak a new language
99448 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Health

How art therapy is helping stroke victims speak a …

by Donna Chisholm

re-stART, an Auckland art therapy programme, is thought to be the first in the world targeting stroke survivors.

Read more