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.