Ladies in Black

by Toby Woollaston

lIBWho knew that in 1959 Sydney also had a beady-eyed store-mounted Santa sporting a creepy “come hither little child” mechanical finger.  It’s just one of many cultural touch-stones on show in this adaptation of Madeleine St John’s bestselling novel.

Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) has played it safe in his treatment of the source material.  There is little conflict or anguish to be found in here, as Beresford paints a summertime Sydney in full glow. The pallet is bright and breezy, much like the film’s characters all who buoyantly waft on and off the screen with the innocence and exuberance of the period.

Lisa (Angourie Rice), around whom much of the action revolves, is an earnest young summertime recruit of an upmarket Department store. Her doe-eyed innocence is met with curiosity as she is taken under the wing of two seasoned saleswomen, Fay and Patty. At the group’s core is the matriarchal Magda (Julia Ormond), a glamorous Slovenian immigrant who manages the high-fashion floor. Ormond positively shines in a scenery-chewing role as she effortlessly glides around the set, ushering the other three in and out of various social quandaries. The narrative is fairly low-key and occasionally meandering, but what it lacks in plot machinations, it makes up with satisfyingly rich and engaging characters.

Magda’s Eastern European roots allow the film to examine Australia’s elephant in the room; immigration.  Australia’s influx of refugees, or “reffoes” as they are referred to in the film, is as relevant a topic now as it was back in the fifties. However, beholden to the tone of St. John’s novel, Beresford has chosen to gently tiptoe through the sensitive topic, lest he set off alarm bells in Australia’s off-shore detention centres. But despite his very light hand, the film is a multi-faceted portrayal of identity and opportunity, and doesn’t ignore the immigrant influences that found their milieu within post-war Australia.

While the film feels slightly avoidant of the deeper issues at stake, what remains is a delightfully warm-hearted film that turns a topical minefield into an inviting meadow you’ll want to roll around in.  

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.