×

Film Review: ‘Ladies in Black’

Bruce Beresford's feel-good dramedy about female department store workers in 1950s Sydney is a hit-and-miss affair.

Director:
Bruce Beresford
With:
Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice, Rachael Taylor, Ryan Corr
Release Date:
Sep 20, 2018

1 hour 49 minutes

Official Site: https://www.ladiesinblackmovie.com.au/

Women working at a fancy Sydney department store in 1959 are the subjects of “Ladies in Black,” an uneven dramedy directed and co-written by veteran Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant,” Driving Miss Daisy”). After establishing an interesting picture of conservative Anglo-Australian values clashing with worldly views brought to the new land by post-war immigrants, “Ladies” is let down by a screenplay lacking the sharp wit and emotional depth to bring its characters and themes fully to life. Attractively packaged, optimistic to a fault, and well performed by an ensemble including Julia Ormond and rising local star Angourie Rice, “Ladies” should register as pleasant enough entertainment for general domestic audiences, predominantly older females, although offshore prospects look iffy.

Set in the Sydney of Beresford’s youth and based on the 1993 novel “The Women in Black” by his University of Sydney contemporary Madeleine St John, “Ladies” unfolds in the golden rays of summertime leading up to Christmas. With CGI restoring long-gone streetcars and touching up historical buildings that remain in downtown Sydney, the film looks terrific even before the camera glides into the luxuriously appointed ladies’ fashion department of upmarket retailer F.G. Goodes.

Taking her place as a lowly temp worker in the busy holiday season is Lisa Miles (Rice), a 16-year-old high school graduate awaiting her university entrance exam results. The bookish girl dreams of being a poet and getting more out of life than the housewife role of her hard-working mother (Susie Porter). To attend university in this era, Lisa needs permission from her father (Shane Jacobson), an intermittently amusing caricature of the basically decent but ignorant, beer-drinking Aussie stereotype. Lisa’s first task at F.G. Goodes is to help Patty Williams (Alison McGirr) and Fay Baines (Rachael Taylor). The youngster is soon taken under the wing of Magda Szombatheli (Ormond), a sophisticated Slovenian who arrived as a post-war “refo” (Aussie derogatory slang for refugee) and now runs the prestigious and pricey Model Gowns showroom.

The script by Beresford and producer Sue Milliken (with whom Beresford also collaborated on “The Fringe Dwellers,” “Black Robe,” and “Paradise Road”) weaves the four women’s stories into a hit-and-miss panorama of Australian womanhood on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Rice impresses as the bright-eyed Lisa, whose friendship with Magda and her cultured Hungarian “refo” husband Stefan (Vincent Perez) speaks positively about the role played by migrants in the country’s post-war emergence as a vibrant multicultural society. Ormond essays her part nicely, investing Magda with both the warmth of a nurturing mentor and the sassy style of a naughty aunt imparting worldly wisdom about art, men and love.

The relaxed and natural tone of Lisa’s relationship with Magda and her European friends is not as strong elsewhere. Fay, a blond beauty in the Grace Kelly mold, has become sick of selfish and sex-obsessed Australian men. After being set up by Magda, Fay casts aside her casual racism to begin dating Rudi Janosi (Ryan Corr), a brainy, handsome, and impeccably well-manned Hungarian. That’s fine, but the couple’s romance is needlessly complicated by Fay coming to terms with her checkered past as a nightclub dancer. The least successful storyline is Patty’s problem with hubby Frank (Luke Pegler), a country-born guy who barely says a word and has lost all interest in “intimate relations.” His sudden disappearance after a rare night of passion and re-emergence a week later brings confusion instead of clarity and catharsis.

While the story touches upon many substantial social issues such as Patty and Frank’s troubles, it suffers from prosaic dialogue and an aversion to anything resembling real conflict. Most problems are solved far too quickly and easily, as if the film doesn’t want to risk any disruption to its feel-good spirit. As a result of such relentless optimism, many characters act like they’ve been transported from an inoffensive mainstream movie made in 1959 and end up as bland, two-dimensional figures lacking the complex human qualities required to take 2018 audiences on a memorable emotional journey.

That said, “Ladies” constructs a happy ending that’ll leave a satisfying final impression for many viewers, and it’s always pleasing to the eye. Cinematographer Peter James delivers radiant imagery in his 13th collaboration with Beresford. Felicity Abbott’s meticulous production design and Wendy Cork’s fabulous costumes are seen at their best in a museum-display-worthy recreation of the deluxe shopping experience enjoyed by cashed-up women in the heyday of department stores. Christopher Gordon’s traditional score is well suited to the occasion, if a tad over-used. All other technical work is fine.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: ‘Ladies in Black’

Reviewed at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide, Sept. 17, 2018. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: (Australia) A Sony Pictures Releasing (Australia) release of a Screen Australia, Sony Pictures Releasing International, Stage 6 Films presentation of a Lumila Films production, in association with Create NSW, the Ruskin Company. (Int'l sales: Stage 6 Films, Los Angeles.) Producers: Sue Milliken, Allanah Zitserman. Executive producers: Bruno Charlesworth, Roger Savage, Steve Ransohoff,  Elizabeth Mack, Jonathan Mack, John De Margheriti, Vicky De Margheriti, Joseph B. Mellicker, Morris Ruskin, Elissa Leonard.

Crew: Director: Bruce Beresford. Screenplay: Beresford, Sue Milliken, based on the novel “The Women in Black” by Madeleine St John. Camera (color, widescreen): Peter James. Editor: Mark Warner. Music: Christopher Gordon.

With: Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice, Rachael Taylor, Ryan Corr, Shane Jacobson, Susie Porter, Alison McGirr, Luke Pegler, Vincent Perez, Noni Hazlehurst, Nicholas Hammond, Deborah Kennedy, Celia Massingham, Jesse Hyde, Genevieve Lemon.

More Film

  • CineLink Work in Progress Provides Step

    CineLink Work in Progress Provides Step Onto International Stage

    The Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Work in Progress section has become a major venue for filmmakers from Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa – this year it saw nearly 70 submissions, the most in the past decade. The competitive program boasts a large number of projects that have gone on to achieve major [...]

  • System Crasher

    Oscars: Germany Selects 'System Crasher' for International Feature Film Award

    Germany has chosen Nora Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” as its entry for the newly re-branded International Feature Film award at the 92nd Academy Awards, it was announced Wednesday by promotional body German Films. Produced by Kineo Filmproduktion and Weydemann Bros, the film won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, where it received its world premiere [...]

  • Stephen Woolley Elizabeth Karlsen

    Shochiku Backs U.K.'s Number 9 Films With First-Look Deal

    Number 9 Films has signed a first-look distribution deal for its films in Japan with Japanese studio Shochiku, the British independent announced Wednesday. As part of the multi-year deal, which will focus on Number 9’s slate of theatrical films, Shochiku will contribute to the production company’s overhead as well as development funding. The first title [...]

  • Love is the Monster

    Neto Villalobos’ ‘Love is the Monster’ Heads to San Sebastian Co-Pro Forum (EXCLUSIVE)

    Costa Rican director Ernesto “Neto” Villalobos’ third feature, “Love is the Monster,” will participate in September’s San Sebastian Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum. Having found festival success with his first two features, “All About the Feathers” and “Helmet Heads,” both drama-comedies, Villalobos will head in a different direction with “Love is the Monster,” a psychological thriller [...]

  • Pinewood Atlanta Studios

    Pinewood Group to Exit Atlanta Studios Joint Venture

    The Pinewood Group is pulling out of its Atlanta facility as it refocuses its international strategy. The group announced Wednesday that it has sold its equity in Pinewood Atlanta Studios to River’s Rock, its joint venture partner in the facility. The joint venture was set up in 2013 with Pinewood Atlanta Studios now the second [...]

  • El Principe

    Storyboard Swoops on Seven Titles for 2020 Chilean Distribution (EXCLUSIVE)

    Key Chilean independent production-distribution company Storyboard Media has announced a knock-your-socks-off slate of seven domestic features, in varying degrees of completion, to be released in Chile across 2020. Bound for Venice’s Critics’ Week, Sebastián Muñoz’s “The Prince” was a hit at last year’s works in progress section at the San Sebastian Film Festival and will [...]

  • Tigerlily

    Banijay Rights Signs First Look Deal with Tigerlily Prods.

    Seeking to expand its scripted offering, Banijay Rights has signed a first look development deal with Tigerlily Productions, a U.K. production company whose credits include David Farr’s “The Ones Below” and “Remainder” with Tom Sturridge. The deal covers scripted programming developed, created and produced by Tigerlily for the U.K. and international markets. Tigerlily Productions, which [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content