Australia might be known for sun, surf and sand, but when we bring our climate and landscape to the big screen, the results aren't always glowing. That's not a criticism of the quality of movies made by Aussie filmmakers. Rather, it's a reflection of their fondness for darker stories. For decades, the outback has been a source of menace, as seen in everything from Wake in Fright and Mad Max to Wolf Creek and The Rover. When we splash about in the water, sharks attack, as The Reef made plain. And when Australian cinema hangs out at the beach in the name of fun, the results can be raucous in an over-the-top manner, like Swinging Safari, or tinged with coming-of-age melancholy, like Puberty Blues.
Ladies in Black takes place in Sydney's inner-city hustle and bustle, but it's an unmistakably summery film — and it's unmistakably hopeful. Much of its running time is spent within a fictional department store that's modelled after David Jones, however the movie captures that end-of-year feeling that is incredibly familiar to Australians. The weather heats up, Christmas and New Year's Eve beckon, and life instantly seems brighter. And while our protagonists navigate ups and downs as they go about their lives circa 1959, just before the 60s sweep in to change everything, the film's buoyant air never subsides.
Fresh out of high school, budding poet Lisa (Angourie Rice) takes a job on the fifth floor of Goode's, donning a black dress and trying to do her best. It's not a career move but a stop-gap, as she attempts to convince her father (Shane Jacobson) to let her go to university. Amidst selling cocktail frocks and high-end gowns, her fellow colleagues all have their own dilemmas, all emblematic of a society that doesn't quite realise an enormous shift is around the corner. Fay Baines (Rachael Taylor) longs for a man who will treat her well, while Patty Williams (Alison McGirr) wants her existing husband to notice that she exists. As for Slovenian immigrant Magda (Julia Ormond), in-between putting up with scorn for being a refugee, taking Lisa under her wing, and helping a Hungarian friend (Ryan Corr) find a nice Aussie girl, she's working towards opening her own fashion boutique.
It has taken more than two decades for writer-director Bruce Beresford (Mao's Last Dancer) and his long-term producer turned co-writer Sue Milliken to bring Ladies in Black to the screen, and their affection and determination shows. Making the leap from best-selling novel to Australian stage musical and now to the cinema, this tale of women stepping towards a new future is rendered in loving and meticulous style. Intricate production design fills every frame, bringing jam-packed trams, suburban homes and, of course, the main department store to life. Costume-wise, the dresses that feature so prominently prove a vintage fashion-lover's dream. And with the picture's sunny hues and optimistic mood as well, Sydney has rarely looked as radiant.
From rising talent Rice (a veteran of The Nice Guys, The Beguiled and Spider-Man: Homecoming at the age of just 17) to the more experienced likes of Ormond, Taylor and Corr, the movie's stars are also lively and warm. Every performance in the film feels lived in, including Susie Porter as Lisa's doting stay-at-home mum and Noni Hazlehurst as a Goode's supervisor. The texture in the cast's work couldn't be more crucial — in a slightly over-padded film that keeps its narrative dramas noticeably modest, and its themes of equality and multiculturalism undeniably overt and broad, much of the minutiae comes from the characters. Indeed, the thoroughly crowd-pleasing Ladies in Black is like a gorgeous gown that way: lovely to look at from afar, but boasting extra detail when seen from a closer vantage.