Urban Cinefile
"I was very lucky: all the battles I fought with the studio were to do with money and time, and nothing to do with the artistic choices "  -Sam Mendes on directing American Beauty
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



Adapted from the bestselling novel by Madeleine St John, Ladies in Black is an alluring and tender-hearted comedy drama about the lives of a group of department store employees in 1959 Sydney.

Review by Louise Keller:
Bruce Beresford's Ladies in Black is a real charmer. It's a winning glimpse of Sydney life in the late 50s, when attitudes are coloured by parochial views and Eastern European influences begin to find their milieu. Adapting Madeleine St John's 1993 bestselling novel, Beresford and producer Sue Millikin have beautifully captured the essence of the times with this coming of age story set in a department store, where high fashion and the women who sell it are centre of focus. With meticulous production design and careful attention to the tone, Beresford has created an uplifting and crowd-pleasing film in which character, setting and exposition are in harmony. It's sweet but not too sweet; funny in an offbeat way and Sydney dons her best dress to showcase her dazzling beauty.

Beyond the bustle of the trams and traffic, there's a sense of wonder as lights go on in the exclusive department store Goodes, accompanied by the elegant tinkling of the piano keys. A flock of pretty girls waltz through the doors wearing waisted, floral dresses that are quickly replaced by mandatory black work dresses, black shoes, red lips, suspender belts & stockings. These are the Ladies in Black and this is their story.

Central to the plot is Julia Ormond's Magda, the manager of the David Jones inspired exclusive fashion floor, who is feared and criticised in equal measures. (Ormond's warmth and charisma fills the screen.) Magda is the elegant East European doyenne from a world that is far beyond the comprehension of the small-town Australian girls. The humanising of Magda occurs when she spots the shy, bespectacled schoolgirl Lisa (Angourie Rice, a face to watch), the new recruit on the floor, who aspires one day to be a poet or an actress. Reminding Magda of the girl she once was, she takes Lisa under her wing, instills confidence in her and begins her transformation from ugly duckling into gracious swan. There are shades of Strictly Ballroom and The Devil Wears Prada, as plaits and spectacles are discarded...

It is Lisa who becomes the catalyst for the changes for the other Ladies in Black. Rachael Taylor's sales girl Fay in Grace Kelly mode, is a cinematographer's dream; her personal story and connection with Hungarian Rudi (Ryan Corr) is the film's most engaging subplot. Taylor is superb and the pull push relationship between the two works well. I love the scene shot in the Blue Mountains, when Fay hesitantly reveals to Rudi the secrets of her past. We are also drawn into her colleague Patty's (Alison McGirr) home life and the (at times humorous) crisis concerning her intimate relations with her husband Frank (Luke Pegler).

But the focus lies with Lisa, who is trying to move away from the Australian suburban life in which her loving mother (Susie Porter, always excellent) and oblivious father (Shane Jacobson, cast to type) have created. For one thing, she wants to be called Lisa, not her given name of Lesley. These are scenes that elicit the most humour (the expression on Jacobson's face as he is presented with salami and red wine instead of beer is priceless) and the Australian colloquialisms like 'strewth', 'hooroo' and 'too right' sit just right. One of the best lines (about men) goes something like this: 'We don't understand them and they don't understand themselves... they can't manage on their own...' Then there's the lure of glamour and exotic influences of 'continental types', like Magda's Hungarian husband (Vincent Perez, charismatic). The scenes shot at May Gibbs' harbourside home Nutcote in Neutral Bay are gorgeous. Noni Hazlehurst is solid as the store manager and Jesse Hyde is terrific as Australian born Hungarian boy that Lisa likes.

Casting is faultless and watch for Urban Cinefile's Andrew L. Urban in a tiny cameo as Sandor. Cinematographer Peter James captures the imagery with style, while Christopher Gordon's buoyant score keeps the mood alive. Meet the Ladies in Black; they're delightful!

Email this article

Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 0

(Aus, 2018)

CAST: Rachael Taylor, Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice,

PRODUCER: Sue Milliken, Allanah Zitzermann

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford

SCRIPT: Bruce Beresford, Sue Milliken


EDITOR: Mark Warner

MUSIC: Christopher Gordon


RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 20, 2018

Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2021