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Ladies in Black

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

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.”


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The Beguiled

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Sofia Coppola’s career may have all been leading up to this. Her propensity to bring life to period settings in Marie Antoinette, her equally laconic and dreamlike approach to violence in The Virgin Suicides, and her feminist roots that have been fostered in each and every one of her films is all played pitch-perfectly in her new film, The Beguiled. The film is set in a girls’ school in the South during the American Civil War where seven women live alone. One day, one of the students comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee and the enemy, who they take in and care for. But the longer he stays, the higher tensions rise as the women’s competing desires begin to boil to the surface.

It is no wonder that Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival where The Beguiled was in competition for the prestigious Palm d’Or. There is a magnetism to this film that lures you in, scene after scene, deeper into its narrative. Part of this hypnotic quality comes from the cinematography of Philippe le Sourd (The Grandmaster). This is one of the most beautiful films out this year. The girls’ school, a huge estate trapped in the middle of a forest and the Civil War, is shut off from the world. Light attempts to pierce through the trees to no avail. A mystical fog constantly lingers. There is a sense of powerlessness to these women as they watch the distant smoke of battle slowly creeping in around them.

When they come across McBurney, the wounded soldier, they decide to take him in because of their Christian values, but also, though they never say it, because he is so handsome. It’s easy to imagine a different scenario where this film’s story would never have taken place, had the injured soldier been less appealing. But quickly, the girls realise that he is also a charmer and we, the audience, learn he is a liar. Within days he is spinning vastly different narratives to bring himself closer with each girl and woman. The main objects of his desire are the headstrong headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), her naïve assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the eldest and most troublesome of the students, Alicia (Ella Fanning).

Each actor and actress is perfect in their respective roles, particularly Colin Farrell who hasn’t been this good since his wonderful and yet starkly different role in In Bruges.

This film, like its protagonist, engages in a grand seduction. As the film moves along Coppola coils in, as, little by little, the girls’ original fears of the soldier are traded for lust and with each passing day, they are all falling under his spell. The quips they exchange with McBurney become more flirtatious and hide a deeper subtext, a deeper desire. In terms of pacing, thrillers do not get much better than this. The film is restrained and explosive at exactly the right moments.

But what the film is really about is female power. In a world where they would otherwise be powerless due to societal expectations and due to the expectations they impose upon themselves, these women rise up and face their fears head-on. In the last act of the film, they are truly something terrifying and inspiring to behold.

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director