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Australia 2018
Directed by
Bruce Beresford
109 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Ladies In Black

Synopsis: It’s 1959 when Sydney teenager Leslie "Lisa' Miles (Angourie Rice) gets a Christmas job at a department store and begins to experience the first throes of adulthood.

The peak of Australian director Bruce Beresford’s career was the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989).  He has worked consistently in film and television, largely in America, ever since returning briefly for the 2009 USA/China/Australia co-production Mao’s Last Dancer. With Ladies In Black, a film he has been trying to make for many years, he returns to our shores with a marvellous home-coming gift.  

Basing his film on an autobiographical novel ‘The Women in Black’ by his late friend Madeleine St John, which he adapted with producer Sue Milliken, Beresford tells a dual coming-of-age story.  One is that of the fresh-faced Sydney teenager who lives at home with her conventionally Aussie parents. The other is that of Australia itself, just beginning to be transformed by post-war immigration.

These two aspects come together in the relationship between Magda, the Slovenian fashionista who runs the haute couture section of Goode’s, the (fictional) department store at which Lesley works. Magda, who came to Australia after the war with her Hungarian husband Stefan (Vincent Perez), pained by Antipodean provincialism by which she finds herself surrounded, quietly sets about rescuing Lesley from suburban banality. Despite the beguilingly escapist picture-perfect stylings with which they are treated, the main story and its various sub-plots are held together by St John’s abiding concern with women’s experiences in these chauvinistic but changing times (during which both she and Beresford were students at Sydney University along with other luminaries of the burgeoning counter-cultural avant-garde such as Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Richard Walsh).

With the help of limpid cinematography by Peter James (who lensed the similarly nostalgia-steeped Driving Miss Daisy amongst other Beresford films), some judicious CGI, superb art direction, flawless costume and production design Beresford brings late ‘50s Sydney to life not so much with fidelity as a kind of hypnagogic realism, giving us an idealized world burnished to a warm glow by the indulgences of fond memories. It is a thoroughly charming recreation of a time when upmarket department stores had liveried doormen, and as the height of sophistication, a piano player in ladies' fashion and trams trundled Sydney’s spotless streets.

If this enchanting albeit sentimental experience is enough to amply justify the price of a ticket the performances are equally beguiling. Heading the bill is British actress Julia Ormond as Magda, a full-bodied, forceful woman who is quietly disdainful of Australian women’s subservience to their men. Angourie Rice is luminous as the bright-eyed teenager thirsting for beauty and thrilled by the world to which Magda introduces her. Whilst these two provide the crux of the film Beresford gets equally strong performances from the rest of the cast: Rachael Taylor as a slightly-soiled beauty vaguely aware of there being more to life than her lot apparently suggests but unsure where to find it; Alison McGirr as her sexually-frustrated friend struggling to engage with her repressed husband (Luke Pegler); Susie Porter and Shane Jacobson as Lesley’s parents; and a spot-on Noni Hazlehurst as Miss Cartwright, the ladies’ fashion department manager.

It has been a good while since there has been an Australian film so artfully entertaining as Ladies in Black. Miss it at your peril. .




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