Review © Jane Freebury
Rated PG, I hr 49 mins
Like many girls in generations past, Lisa takes a job in retail while she waits for her school leaving results. It opens her eyes to things that North Sydney Girls High and life at home in a red-brick suburban bungalow couldn’t begin to. Angourie Rice brings sweet authenticity to her role as a shy and serious teenager whose life changes big-time in the lead-up to Christmas in 1959.
How so? Magda, the formidable, charming woman running the haute couture at Goode’s department store knows a good employee when she sees one. As a Slovenian émigré who runs rings around everyone, British actress Julia Ormond has the wittiest lines in one of the best written Australian films in years.
The spirited screenplay is adapted from The Women in Black, the 1993 novel by the late Madeleine St John.
Magda worked in Paris pre-war but fled Europe a refugee. With devoted husband, Hungarian émigré, Stefan (Vincent Perez) in tow, she arrived in Sydney with fashion credentials and aplomb to die for. With a light and airy touch, she gives Lisa – who’s already shown signs of independent thought in changing her name from Lesley – the complete makeover.
Off with the reading spectacles, down with the hair, in with the belt and the girl is ready to introduce to Magda’s circle of immigrant friends at her lower North Shore parties.
Fay (Rachael Taylor), a colleague of Lisa’s, also gets an invite on New Year’s Eve, because Rudi (Ryan Corr), a lonely young Hungarian, would like to meet an Australian girl. Taylor is pitch perfect as the slightly sad 30-year-old who’s been around a while.
The film’s entire ensemble cast, including Noni Hazlehurst as the stern store supervisor, give nuanced performances, pitched just so. The only characters whose backstories don’t work so well are Patty (Alison McGirr), and her husband Frank (Luke Pegler) whose dysfunction could do with more explanation.
For Lisa’s mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson) adapting to change is a learning process too – learning to enjoy salami, olives and foreign red wine, along with letting their daughter go as their world moves on.
Sydney is on the cusp of change as new immigrants from war-ravaged Europe flood to the sunny, harbourside city. Melburnian audiences may have to take some of the jokes about their city circa 1959 on the chin.
The filmography of director Bruce Beresford is about as long as the contemporary Australian film industry, and includes popular favourites like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Breaker Morant, Paradise Road and Mao’s Last Dancer.
There is something crazy brave in these fractious times about the basic decency and wit and wisdom born of experience in Ladies in Black. It also deserves to strike a chord with its accomplished and charming take on times past.