Released: 20th September
Seen: 29th September
Based on the book of the same name, Ladies In Black is an Australian Dramady set following the lives of four women working in the Goodes department store in Sydney during 1959. It’s a short time after the second world war and the country is adjusting to a slowly growing wave of refugees who escaped the war and made a life in Australia.
We mostly follow Lisa (Played by Angourie Rice), a shy young girl with the intellect to make it and a desire to become a poet who is working as a Christmas temp at Goodes while she awaits the results of her exams to be printed in the Sydney Morning Herald. We also follow Fay (Played by Rachael Taylor) who has been working at Goodes for some time and has decided to give up on dating because every man in Sydney just wants to get handsy without actually caring about her. Then there’s Magda (Played by Julia Ormond), a refugee who works in the luxury dress section of Goodes and takes young Lisa under her wing, while also setting Fay up with another refugee that she knows, Rudi (Played by Ryan Coor). Finally, there’s Patty (Played by Alison McGirr), another worker at Goodes who is trying to get pregnant and not having a good time of it.
This film is really a slice of life piece that just shows a group of people with no real drama. There is no great worry to be had here, we’re not worried about Lisa not getting a scholarship to her Uni of choice because we basically sort that out without a few minutes. The store isn’t about to close, no one is suddenly betraying everyone, the characters are all kind everyday people living in Sydney doing their jobs and making it through the day relatively easily… or, at least, that’s how it is on the surface. Weaved throughout the narrative is this recurring theme of migrants and assimilation, how culture is changed by those who we take in. There has never been a more poignant time to tell such a story, since Australia, in particular, is right now having a major discussion about what to do with refugees who came here by boat because they determined that the water was safer than where they had been. The film is pointing out just what kind of contributions those people have, not only to the people who know them but to those who don’t.
There is a fascinating slow evolution how the characters at the checkout desk (Patty, Fay and Lisa) react to the migrant (Magda), talking about her in secret and joking about how she’s Dracula because she’s a refugee, or “Reffo” to use the term that is repeated throughout the film. Slowly Magda uses her knowledge of the world in order to help those who she is with, either helping them be more confident or try new things or even to find love. She introduces Lisa’s stereotypical Aussie father Mr. Miles (Played by Shane Jacobson) to new foods like Salami or wine without him even being aware that she did it. She brings together her community and the women of the store, enriching their lives through the introduction of things that they might’ve considered “Foreign” or “Other” and, turns out, when you get introduced to interesting new things that it ends up making you a better person with a more rich and full life.
Every character’s story, in some way, links back to Magda and in particular how each of them deals with having a refugee in the mix. There are no intense moments of racial hatred, we don’t get any dramatic scenes where Magda is put in danger by the bigotry of others. The worst thing that Magda seems like she has to deal with throughout the film is the lack of a good cup of coffee, other than that she has a very fulfilling life with friends and a husband who supports her work and a job that seemingly pays well enough that she can afford a home (Oh wait, 1950’s, the gorgeous house probably cost about 100K and could be put on layby or something). She doesn’t really change to make people like her, and she doesn’t have to because she’s insanely charming and likable from the start. What does change, subtly, is the way everyone else sees her. If you’re looking for some grand moment where everyone looks around and goes “Wow, we were wrong about refugees and we feel ashamed” then you’re not going to find it. The entire point of this story is that the change happens when you get to know the people and the bigotry that you held onto can wash away.
The film is shot wonderfully, some location shots make locations I’ve personally visited look better than I’ve ever seen them. I am literally a few hours away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I could be there by the end of the day and I have never seen it or the water surrounding it look anywhere near as perfect as it does here. Apparently the set for Goodes itself is an unused floor of the David Jones building in Sydney that hasn’t changed since 1959 and it looks like it, the time capsule style of the sets is gorgeous and every shot inside the store is filled with the kind of class that can only come from being in a shopping centre that has a grand piano being played while everyone buys overly expensive dresses.
Ladies In Black is a great film that works on two levels, it can be a sweet delightful trip through the lives of women in the 50’s or it’s a clever discussion about how we treat refugees. While it may not stand out and be something so spectacular that it knocked me back and demanded 5 stars on everything, it’s charming and delightful and clever enough to get a staff discount on that score.