By Jack Dignan
There’s not much to this movie. There isn’t any major hurdle the characters need to overcome, or any obstacle holding them back from eternal happiness. It doesn’t set itself up to change the world, or attempt to lend itself to controversial world issues. There’s nothing remarkably unique about this film, and yet, there’s a distinct charm about it that I couldn’t help but find enjoyment in. Ladies in Black is far from a must see, but this Australian drama/comedy is far from the worst film our wonderful country has produced so far this year.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Madeline St John, Ladies in Black takes us all the way back to a popular dress shop in 1959 Sydney. Times are on the brink of change, and it’s these changes that are going to effect the lives of our central protagonists. Lisa (Angourie Rice) has taken up a summer job at the dress shop during the Christmas break, taking her mind off of her soon-to-be-revealed exam results. It’s here she meets Fay (Rachel Taylor), a young woman struggling to find love, Patty (Alison McGirr), who’s struggling with her marriage, and Magda (Julia Ormond), an immigrant who’s found herself happily settled in this strange new country.
The plot is nothing special. These characters aren’t awfully unique. And yet the story they go on, and the happiness they seek to find in this ever-changing political climate, is one of effortless delight and dazzling romance. Set over a number of months, we follow these leading ladies through a period of personal and social change, and while the politics of the whole thing does feel a little underdeveloped, ultimately leading to very little and forcing character arcs down our throat, their personal developments are interesting to watch unfold. The characters are distinct and fleshed out, most notably the young Lisa played by an ever-bubbly Angourie Rice.
A lot of the dialogue they’re forced to deliver does have a hamminess to it, meaning the actors struggle to make some of these lines work. Their performances, for the most part, hit all the right marks, especially McGirr’s Patty who’s the strongest of the lot, but Taylor’s delivery often feels forced and unnatural. A great deal of the blame can be shifted to the inhuman lines she’s been given, but a lot of her performance doesn’t do it any service. Susie Porter as Mrs. Miles is also notably stale, but she’s partnered with a performance from Shane Jacobson that’s as ugly as it is sweet, and Jacobson absolutely delivers. However, due to his limited, albeit memorable screen time, his arc does come out of nowhere, never earning the emotional sentiments it’s desperately seeking.
Director and co-writer Bruce Beresford certainly gets the look and feel of 1950s Sydney down pat, and his directing style works for what this film’s going for, but it’s all a little too clean for my taste. Everything’s so freshly painted and crafted that nothing ever feels lived in. Its authenticity is lost, even if the costume design is to die for, but then again, Australian period pieces seem to happen so often it’s starting to make me wonder if we just have a secret horde of old costumes the industry continues to recycle. I’d certainly believe it. But nonetheless, Ladies in Black definitely hits the mark. I came in with low expectations and left pleasantly surprised. It’s the perfect girls night out this September.
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