After completing high school, Lisa (Angourie Rice) gains a temporary job in the cocktail dress section of a prestigious department store in 1959. Through her eyes we meet the women of Goode’s, and glimpse the changing face of Australian society. For Lisa, perhaps none more significant than the European migrant Magda (Julia Ormond). She opens her eyes to a world of culture and style far different to her Sydney suburban upbringing.
Based on Women In Black, Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, Ladies In Black offers a nostalgic window into 50s Australia. Beresford goes to great pains in his recreation of this world, and pulls it off with spectacular grace. It is a time when live piano music was played in department stores, and door people were there to courteously usher you through the store rather than as security against shoplifters. It is perhaps an over idyllic representation, but there are frequent hints at a richer, more nuanced, and occasionally darker world at play (such as the tragic tale of Noni Hazlehurst’s Mrs Cartwright). However these are not the focus of Ladies in Black, it keeps itself a light and bubbly film, but it does provide an interesting insight to the period.
Central to this is the theme of immigration and acceptance, as 50s Australia comes to terms with the influx of European migration post war. Here it is a rather low key hostility as the quintessentially Australian society struggles to come to terms with a more educated and refined culture. The parallels to today are blatant, but this is also an optimistic look at how xenophobia can be overcome and lead to a richer society through acceptance and a cross pollination of ideas.
However that might also be the flaw in Ladies in Black. Despite the immaculate recreation of the era, and the strong acting from the cast, this film really doesn’t say that much. It covers a lot of ground, the changing status of women, the move to a more multi-cultural society, and even a brief glimpse at the upcoming sexual revolution, all of these issues to rise into importance in the coming decades for Australia, but none of these are explored in any real depth. It is so upbeat and optimistic that you rarely (if ever) feel any dramatic tension or complex character development. That lack of drama renders the Rachael Taylor and Ryan Corr love story effectively inert, despite the best efforts of both actors. It is as shallow as a classic Hollywood Romance of the era, and perhaps should be viewed in the same vein.
As such Ladies In Black is an enjoyable film, with a few laughs and something important to say, however it never really says it with a degree of conviction. Fun, but lightweight.