About the film
Director: Bruce Beresford
Actors: Angourie Rice, Julia Ormond, Rachael TaylorThe year is 1959 and suburban Australia is in a mild spasm of lace-curtain twitching over the "refos" – refugees – who have recently fled war-ruined Europe for this promised land in the South, bringing with them such horrors as food with flavour, men who cook, decent music and an interest in literature.
The story revolves around Lisa Miles (the radiant Angourie Rice) who has just completed her HSC. She takes on a job for the Christmas break at Goode’s Department Store in the ladies fashion section while waiting for her results, after which she hopes to go to university to become an actress, poet or writer – or all three.
Playing out all this in corseted microcosm are the women who run the frock department of Goode's; a grand downtown department store. The frock department itself is a kind of magic theatre, a space of transformation for both the customers and the staff. The agent of this transformation is Magda (Julia Ormond), a Slovenian cocktail-gown specialist who came to Australia after the war with her Hungarian husband Stefan (Vincent Perez), spending time in a migrant camp along the way.
While Magda's continental manners attract suspicion from the other ladies at Goode's, she proves to be a positive, dynamic force – befriending Lesley, finding a suitable man for the lovelorn Fay (Rachael Taylor), and indirectly helping the sexually frustrated Patty (Alison McGirr) overcome her difficulties with her repressed husband (Luke Pegler).
The ever-busy Beresford, whose myriad credits include no fewer than 32 theatrical features stretching back to 1972 — most notably Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Black Robe and Breaker Morant — has been trying to get this story to the screen for nearly a quarter of a century. It’s lovingly based on the novel, The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John. Beresford, who went to university with St John, received a copy of her book from his friend Clive James and adapted it into a feature screenplay, co-written with Sue Milliken. (St John died in London in 2006, aged 64).
Ladies in Black is a snapshot of a time cultural variation – the colours and the social mores. It seemed we were nicer then, more open to winds of change.