Ladies in Black Review
Sydney, 1959. Having just done her Leaving (pre-University) examinations, Lesley Miles (Angourie Rice) gets a temporary job as a sales assistant in F.G. Goodes’s department store in the city centre, in the run-up to Christmas in the Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks department. Calling herself Lisa instead of Lesley, she joins the other women in their black uniform dresses. Among them is Patty Williams (Alison McGirr), whose husband is wayward, and Fay Baines (Rachael Taylor), looking for love but not finding it. There is also Magda (Julia Ormond), from Eastern Europe, the fearsome guardian of the Model Gowns...
Ladies in Black is based on the 1993 novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. The title change for the film is presumably to avoid confusion with a well-known ghost story adapted for stage, television and cinema. The film captures much of the wit, sharpness and delicacy of the source.
Madeleine St John was fifty-two when the novel, her first, was published. She went on to write three more, one of which, The Essence of the Thing. The Women in Black is the only one of St John’s novels to be set in Australia. Beresford knew St John from the University of Sydney, at a time where their fellow students included Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes – and Clive James, who brought The Women in Black to Beresford’s attention. Beresford read the novel, contacted St John who was then living in London, and bought the film rights. St John read and appoved the script, written by Sue Milliken (who had worked with Beresford as a producer since The Fringe Dwellers in 1986) and Beresford. It took twenty-five years for the film to be made, though.
Like the novel, the film is on a small scale, but relies on pinpoint observation and a sharp wit, delivered with a well-sustained light touch. Some people detected autobiography in the character of Lesley/Lisa, a clever student with aspirations to being a writer (or an actress, or both), but St John disclaimed this, not least because her social background in Sydney was different to Lisa’s. Goodes is a fictionalised version of the real-life David Jones store in Elizabeth Street, Sydney; St John never worked there, but had shopped there with her mother. Some of the film was shot in the now-disused seventh floor of David Jones, and CGI assisted with the creation of turn-of-the-decade Sydney.
The film has a fine cast. Although Ladies in Black is an ensemble piece, Lisa is at the centre of it, with her coming of age being one of the main threads. For some of the film Lisa is a sounding board for the other characters, but Angourie Rice is excellent in the role, with voice inflections and body language tracing her journey from hunched-shouldered shy girl to the more confident young woman at the end, with her future ahead of her. Milla Jovovich was the original choice to play Magda, but left the film, so Julia Ormond took the role. I can’t speak for the veracity of her Slovenian accent, but she is fine as the outwardly fierce but otherwise warm “reffo” (“'New Australians', we’re meant to call them,” says Lisa’s mother) and queen of the Model Gowns department. Noni Hazlehurst and Nicholas Hammond have a nice old-married-couple air as Miss Cartwright and Mr Ryder, those in charge and those at the shop for the duration. But there isn’t a false note in the cast.
Ladies in Black is a delight, even if you aren’t old enough or of the right nationality to remember its time and place. It is dedicated to Madeleine St John, who died in 2006.
The film won AACTA Awards for Best Actress to Angourie Rice (Julia Ormond was nominated in the same category) and for Christopher Gordon’s score. It was nominated for seven others, including Best Film, which went to Sweet Country. The film was a success at the Australian box office, earning $11.9 million, making it as of 2019 the twenty-fourth highest-earning Australian film in local cinemas. However, distribution of Australian films in the UK has been hit and miss for some years, and it’s one of two of the top twenty-five not have had a British cinema release. (The other is number 19, Mao’s Last Dancer, from 2009, also directed by Bruce Beresford.) Five or so years ago, it may have had a DVD release, but now it’s only available in this country by streaming. It’s certainly worth seeking out.
Sony’s Blu-ray of Ladies in Black (there is also a DVD edition) is encoded for all regions. It carries a PG rating, which is the same as it has in the UK.
The film was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa Mini, and the Blu-ray transfer is in the intended ratio of 2.39:1. There’s nothing to complain about, and on disc this looks the same as it did projected from a 2K DCP, at a showing in London where I first saw it. Colours are fine, black are solid and Peter James’s cinematography (also AACTA-nominated) comes over very well.
The soundtrack is in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and is clear and well-balanced for a fairly dialogue-driven film. The subwoofer doesn’t feature much, except for the bassline of a rock 'n' roll song played in a nightclub. There is also an audio-descriptive track in Dolby Digital 5.1, and English subtitles for the hard of hearing. There are no extras.