Adapted from the bestselling novel by Madeleine St John, the feature film Ladies in Black is billed and promoted as a sentimental journey backwards to a time when Australian department stores were the height of societal class, such as that portrayed in the TV series Mr. Selfridge mixed with a bit of The Crown and Downton Abbey – sort of how we imagine David Jones should have been at the height of its historical past – true or imagined.
The time is 1959 Sydney and the story is framed by the “behind the scenes” lives of several female employees at the prestigious Sydney department store Goode’s. Lisa, a high school student, takes on a summer job there and meets the sales ladies, the “ladies in black.” Through their eyes, the audience is shown how the very conservative Aussie world is going to be changed forever by the impact of European immigration and the beginnings of women liberation
Lisa is introduced to Madga, the head of the designer fashion floor. Madga is one of the successful new “continentals” making a successful impact in Australian business. The sales ladies make fun of her Hungarian accent, hint at the strange cuisine she must serve at home, and warn Lisa not to be get close to these people who are “not Australian.” Notwithstanding their heartfelt advise, Lisa accepts an invitation to Madga’s home and is introduced to Mediterranean culture and food and to “continental” friends. Eventually she even gets her beer-swigging dad to try European wine, pepperoni and olives. Madga also actually plays matchmaker between one of the sales ladies and her relatives – “scandalous.”
As directed by Bruce Beresford (Mao’s Last Dancer, Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy), Ladies in Black addresses these racial issues with a light sense of humour, a touch of nostalgia, and a happy ending. This film will not offend Aussie audiences by calling them racists, but it will tickle their funny bone with poignantly accurate vignettes from a time when this island nation was closed off to the outside world and wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. The Aussie characters in the film discover that the world is changing right in their backyard and they adapt one step at a time with that unique Aussie humour. For Australia’s newer immigrants seeing this film, they will enjoy seeing that they have a chance to live life to the fullest in this wonderful land – opportunities are there for them grab hold of and to embrace.
Ladies in Black is a beautiful film to look at and is a breezy 109 minutes of light entertainment. What is most impressive with this film is its ability to transmit its message with subtlety and humour: Australia was a wonderful world for the white race and now can be full of wonderful opportunities for everyone of every race. Simplistic, yes…, overly optimistic, maybe…, but definitely commendable.