‘Ladies in Black’: Film Review

Angourie Rice and Julia Ormond head the cast of ‘Ladies in Black,’ Bruce Beresford’s Australian period piece set in 1959 Sydney.

Australian teenager Angourie Rice continues her impressive ascent towards the big leagues with Ladies in Black, veteran director Bruce Beresford’s long-gestating dream project about a department store in late-1950s Sydney. An easygoing, unashamedly old-fashioned picture executed with a light touch that conceals a serious and sharply topical subtext, it looks set to click with older female audiences on its Sept. 20 domestic release and could plausibly be pitched to a similar demographic overseas.

The ever-busy Beresford, whose myriad credits include no fewer than 32 theatrical features stretching back to 1972 — most notably Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Black Robe and Breaker Morant — has been trying to get this story to the screen for nearly a quarter of a century. It is based on The Women in Black, the belated, well-regarded short debut novel by Beresford’s Sydney University contemporary Madeleine St John, published in 1993 when the author was already in her fifties.

The Bottom Line

Frothy nostalgia with a topical undercurrent.

Both the book and the film are to certain degrees exercises in nostalgia, with Beresford — aided by production-designer Felicity Abbott — lovingly recreating his native city of his youth, during the sunny southern hemisphere summer days around Christmas 1959. Australia was at this point in the middle of a sustained economic boom and accompanying social changes, mirroring those elsewhere in the world.

They are exemplified here by the emergence of a new, self-confident generation of young women and the parallel integration of post-WWII refugees from Europe. Ladies in Black dramatizes these by focusing on the initially mousy Leslie (Rice), a doted-upon only child who takes a temporary Christmas-period job in a fancy Sydney department store — where the assistants are clad in the title’s sable-hued attire — while awaiting her exam results.

Bookish and brainy, Leslie — who prefers to go by ‘Lisa’ among her new friends at work — has her eye on a university place, but in the meantime finds that the store provides valuable forms of education in terms of confidence-building and even in cultural matters. Central to the latter is the imperious-looking but warm-hearted Magda (Julia Ormond), part of the wave of incomers from central and eastern Europe, who with her sophisticated poise effortlessly dominates the haute couture section of the store (perhaps there’s a Reynolds Woodcock or two lurking around).

It’s a pleasure to see Ormond back on the big screen in her most high-profile role since her Vivien Leigh in 2011’s My Week With Marilyn. During the interim, the English actress, who seemed tantalizingly poised for major stardom in the mid-1990s, was Emmy-nominated for her turn as Megan Draper’s mother on AMC’s Mad Men. And, looking strikingly like Juliette Binoche from certain angles here, she exudes period authenticity, even if her “Slovenian” accent wobbles around the mittel-European map somewhat.

But the heart and soul of the picture is Rice, who already has considerable experience of prominent Stateside productions under her belt thanks to The Nice Guys, The Beguiled and Spider-Man: Homecoming. While Leslie/Lisa’s arc isn’t anything particularly new or surprising — she’s much too precocious and studious to ever risk failing in her academic aspirations, for example — Rice brings a hugely appealing freshness to the role and more than holds her own among an ensemble packed with more seasoned players.

These include Susie Porter as her proud mother, who has one wonderfully droll scene when she skillfully persuades Lisa’s amiably old-school dad (Shane Jacobson) to sign the application papers for university (“Just for their records,” she repeatedly urges). Various subplots involving Lisa’s glamorous but down-to-earth co-workers (“Bloody hell, what a day!” exclaims one on the shop floor) are, however, handled in a more perfunctory, soap-opera-like manner, and Lisa’s tepid romance with pleasant young Hungarian migrant Miklos/Michael (Jessie Hyde) feels like a bolted-on afterthought.

The presence of the Hungarian-flavored influx of well-educated, culturally rich newcomers — somewhat scornfully dubbed “reffos” by certain of the longer-established communities — provides Ladies in Black with a welcome depth that counterbalances the general air of brightly lit, excessively scored buoyancy which prevails. The status of refugees, especially those being “temporarily” housed offshore on the independent island of Nauru, has been a significant source of controversy in Australian public life since at least the turn of the century and is seldom far away from the headlines. Ladies in Black quietly but effectively points out the seldom-stressed positives of immigration and integration, and thus deserves attention far beyond its own native shores.

Production companies: Lumila Films, Ladies in Black SPV
Cast: Angourie Rice, Julia Ormond, Vincent Perez, Susie Porter, Rachael Taylor, Ryan Corr, Celia Massingham, Shane Jacobson, Nicholas Hammond, Noni Hazlehurst
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenwriters: Bruce Beresford, Sue Milliken (based on the novel
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John)
Producers: Sue Milliken, Allanah Zitserman
Cinematographer: Peter James
Production designer: Felicity Abbott
Costume designer: Wendy Cook
Editor: Mark Warner
Composer: Christopher Gordon
Casting director: Christine King
Venue: CinefestOZ, Busselton, Western Australia
Sales: Stage 6, Culver City, CA

109 minutes