Ladies in Black – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 24 September, 2018
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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



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


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