Ladies in Black

September 20, 2018
Ladies in Black... a tableau vivant

“Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!” lamented Shelley. He wasn’t referring to the Australian film industry but his words could hardly be more apposite. The number of local films I’ve watched in recent years that inspired even the faintest twinge of delight might be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Finally, the drought has broken. Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black is that rarest of cinematic experiences: a movie with no dark side whatsoever. Such films can be banal and irritating affairs, but Beresford keeps the story dancing along from start to finish. Notwithstanding its funereal title, Ladies in Black paints a picture of Sydney in the late 1950s that conjures up an age of innocence: a time when stereotypical Aussie values were more than empty labels to be exploited by advertisers and politicians.

It’s not true of course. To obtain such a rosy portrait of any era one needs to edit out a lot of unpleasant stuff. It also works the other way around. In Stephen Poliakoff’s films 1950s Britain is portrayed as a land riven by vested interests, political conspiracies and class hatred. All these factors make for gripping drama but they do not constitute a complete picture.

In its unashamedly partial view of the recent past Ladies in Black offers a rebuke to the misery and confusion of the present day. It harks back to a time when European migrants were called “reffos”, and treated as mysterious but vaguely intriguing additions to Australian life. Today, political parties demonise refugees to curry favour with a fickle, insecure electorate.

The film portrays the 1950s as a time of gender optimism, when women were beginning to step away from traditional roles, in pursuit of education and independence. This should be bracing stuff for women seeking to make their way in today’s Liberal Party.

In Ladies in Black, culture arrives as a novelty to be savoured and valued. Today we are glutted with every form of cultural product, most of it trash, judged in terms of its popularity, fashionabilty and cash value.

Beresford’s story, based on a celebrated novel by Madeleine St. John, is as thin as a wafer. It covers a few months in the lives of a group of women who work in a big city department store called Goode’s – a firm that bears more than a passing resemblance to David Jones. There’s Leslie (Angourie Rice), who prefers to be known as Lisa – a teenager who wants to go to university and become a poet or an actress. There’s Fay (Rachael Taylor), a lonely girl with a chequered past who dreams of meeting a man who might love her more than he loves his mates.

Her colleague, Patty (Alison McGirr), has troubles at home, with a husband (Luke Pegler) who seems strangely disconnected from life, and lacking in romantic spirit. The show-stealer is Julia Ormand as Magda, a Slovenian refugee of imposing Euro-sophistication, who tries to stimulate an appreciation of Parisian haute couture in barbarous Sydney.

These are only the main characters. There are lots of marvellous supporting roles, from Susie Porter and Shane Jacobson as Lisa’s true-blue Aussie parents; to Vincent Perez, playing Magda’s droll Hungarian husband, Stefan. Ryan Corr surprises us as Rudi, Stefan’s Hungarian compatriot, who becomes Fay’s salvation when all she expects from men is sleaze.

Ladies in Black is impressive for its acting, for set and costume designs that make 1950s Sydney vividly real; and for sharp, witty dialogue that hasn’t been heard in these parts for many, many moons.

It’s hardly surprising that Beresford’s return to top form has come along in the shape of a movie made in Australia, based on an Australian novel, using top Australian actors and a few well-chosen ring-ins. Most of the flat patches in the director’s career have been Hollywood productions, but I won’t be cruel enough to reel off a list of duds now that he’s shown us, once again, what he’s capable of.

Having recently re-acquainted myself with Beresford’s first film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie to present it at a film club, I was struck by the incredible freshness of a movie that was loved by the public and loathed by the critics. The latter saw Barry’s vulgarity as an international embarrassment… just as we were starting to get somewhere culturally. The public, blind to Barry Humphries’s withering satire, saw a genial reflection of themselves.

What Beresford and Humphries did was blow the whistle on the threadbare cultural pretensions of the early 1970s. Barely able to walk we imagined ourselves sprinting ahead of the pack. In truth there was more genuine vitalty in the endlessly inventive stream of slang that issued from Barry’s cake hole, chundering out the remnants of a local folk culture.

Ladies in Black makes an excellent bookend for Barry McKenzie in that it shows us how much we have lost while the Australian economy has been endlessly growing. Chief amongst our losses are openness, good humour, and a belief in the sacred status of ‘a fair go’. To give only the most glaring example, we now have an (unelected) Prime Minister who bleats about Christian values but owes his status in the party to his harsh treatment of refugees.

Beresford’s film may be an historical fantasy but it shows us there are plenty of positives in the Australian experience that are long overdue for a revival.

Ladies in Black
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Bruce Beresford & Sue Milliken, after a novel by Madeleine St. John
Starring Rachael Taylor, Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice, Alison McGirr, Ryan Corr, Vincent Perez, Susie Porter, Shane Jacobson, Noni Hazlehurst, Nicholas Hammond, Luke Pegler
Australia, rated PG, 109 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 September, 2018