Sydney, 1959. While she waits to see if her exam results will open a pathway to university study, bright teen Lisa (Angourie Rice) takes a Christmas job as a sales assistant at the luxurious Goodes department store. There she is taken under the wing of the vivacious Magda (Julia Ormond), a post-WWII immigrant from Slovenia who runs the store’s haute couture department.
Magda is a figure of mystery and a little suspicion to the other “ladies in black” who work the women’s fashion floor, including Patty (Alison McGirr), who is struggling to reach her taciturn, emotionally cut-off husband, and Fay (Rachael Taylor), who is looking for love but disillusioned by the quality of men she attracts. However, to Lisa, Magda is a guiding hand, introducing her to a world of fashion and sophistication that seems a far cry from the more prosaic world inhabited by her working class parents (Shane Jacobson and Susie Porter, perfect).
Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black, Ladies in Black is a bright, brisk, optimistic coming of age tale that dexterously brings to life a mosaic picture of a city on the brink of modernity. The deft script by director Bruce Beresford and producer Sue Milliken touches lightly on a whole swathe of themes and issues – women in the workforce, the right to education, the immigrant experience, sexual liberation – but never dwells on any one, and never lets the potential heaviness of any given topic drag the proceedings down.
In effect, this means that the various dramatic arcs in play are fairly flat parabolas. Nobody really faces any particularly challenging hurdles on their journey to a happy ending, and that’s the only kind of ending the film is interested in (but we do take in a happy beginning and a happy middle on our way there). However, that doesn’t mean that the film is bereft of tension. Rather, that tension exists on a metatextual level because this is a) an Australian film b) about women c) set in the ’50s, so we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will Lisa’s old man forbid her from pursuing a university degree? Will Patty’s husband turn abusive? Will Rachael’s immigrant love interest, Rudi (Ryan Corr, charming as hell) be revealed as a war criminal (a bit of a stretch, but there’s a line of dialogue that hints at the possibility)?
Catharsis comes when the resolutely romantic and upbeat Ladies in Black refuses to wander down potentially dark paths, instead delivering a buoyant, upbeat, cinematic treat precisely crafted by Beresford and his team. It’s not so much a journey to be taken as an experience to luxuriate in, taking in the detailed period setting, vibrant camera work, gorgeous fashions, and winning, charismatic performances.
It’s the latter that really carries the day. Ladies in Black is populated with characters you want to spend time with, from Rice’s spirited ingenue to McGirr’s loving but frustrated wife, to Jacobson’s simple but big-hearted working dad to Noni Hazelhurst’s near-cameo as the ladies’ supervisor who, with Nicholas Hammond’s store manager, functions as a kind of Greek chorus for the action. British actress Ormond gets the showiest role as Magda, all world-weary continental charm and wry sophistication, but it’s Rachael Taylor who is the stand out, giving a luminous performance as the vulnerable Fay that is like something straight out of a Golden Age of Hollywood classic melodrama. If there’s any justice in the world, it’ll be regarded as a star-making turn that puts Taylor firmly on the A-list.
The men are sidelined a little but that’s to be expected and besides, performers the calibre of Corr and French actor Vincent Perez, who plays Magda’s husband Stefan, are smart enough to know their job here is to accentuate the women at the centre of the film, bringing colour and character but never overshadowing the real stars.
There’s a chance that Ladies in Black won’t sit well with some viewers who mistake lightness for simplicity, but this is a thematically complex film not in spite of its bubbly surface, but because of and in tandem with it. Its strength is that it proves that important themes can be addressed at a higher register; not everything has to be a dirge. Ironically for a film so squarely focused on the experience of women, the one term that best fits Ladies in Black is “masterful.”