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Byron Shire
June 21, 2021

Cinema review: Ladies in Black

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Bruce Beresford is one of Australia’s finest filmmakers. Well into his seventies, in this he has directed the sort of movie that, if your life experience does not include blood-drenched gunfights and car chases, you wish you could see every week. Based on the late Madeleine St John’s best seller, it is set in Sydney in 1959*. Lisa (Angourie Rice) has just completed her Leaving Certificate and wants to be a poet. In the meantime she has been taken on as a temp at Goodes’s department store (in reality, the seventh floor of David Jones, with the gloriously kitsch Mark Foys building used for exterior shots). It is a coming-of-age experience for young Lisa, as the period is for the nation as a whole. Refugees (reffos) have flooded into Australia after WWII, bringing with them strange customs and a yearning for high culture. Wide-eyed Lisa, who has changed her name from Lesley, is exposed to these middle European influences by fellow saleslady Magda (Julia Ormond) and her husband Stefan (Vincent Perez). As homage to a more naïve era, this is a sweet and caring portrayal of a teenager and a city on the cusp of, literally, growing up. There is so much to love about it (including some snide put-downs of Melbourne), but its refusal to treat an earlier, Anglo age in a mocking tone, as happens too often when the yarts goes into Sir Les Patterson mode, is primary among its qualities. Lisa’s father (Shane Jacobson), a typesetter who likes a beer, and housewife mum (Susie Porter) might so easily have been just caricatures, but Beresford is too smart for that. Instead, his characters are shown respect and encouraged to be normal, resulting in the flawless cast delivering pitch-perfect performances. Rice glows with girliness, Noni Hazelhurst finds deep poignancy in her role as the spinster manageress, while the romance of Fay and Rudi (Rachel Taylor, Ryan Corr) provides the touching through-line. Don’t miss it – it’s fabulous.

* The champion racehorse Galilee, backed by Jacobson, was not yet foaled in 1959.

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