I’m a sucker for a movie that appreciates the fine art of the department store. Throughout the 1950s, when consumerism and suburbia went hand-in-hand, a trip to the local Macys or Penneys was a luxury. Models wearing the latest fashions were able to walk around, showing off the expensive clothes that only the wealthy and glamorous could buy without taking a second mortgage. If you’ve watched the films of Douglas Sirk (or Todd Haynes for that matter) you’ve seen how luxurious a department store is. And several movies have certainly presented the world of the shopgirls who worked in them, most famously 1939’s The Women. All of this is to say that director Bruce Beresford is mining a rich tradition with his new feature, Ladies in Black. An old-fashioned throwback to the ’50s world of How to Marry a Millionaire, it’s a films whose cast is utterly sweet and lovely to look at even if the movie feels incredibly thin.
The shopgirls of Goode’s department store in 1959 Sydney all have their own unique issues. Newcomer Lisa (Angourie Rice) wants to go to university despite her father’s protestations. She soon captures the eye of the glamorous Magda (Julia Ormand) who teaches Lisa about the finer things. Married Patty (Alison McGirr) has a contentious relationship with her husband that only gets worse when he soon disappears. And the beautiful Fay (Rachael Taylor) can’t seem to find a nice guy who doesn’t objectify her.
Written by Madeleine St. John in 1993, Ladies in Black has been a passion project for Beresford and it’s easy to see why. Beresford is best known as the director of Driving Miss Daisy, a feature that had similar classic film inspirations. This film certainly draws from the ’50s, and movies of an even earlier age, with its simplistic story of young women coping with various life struggles. Though where we’re now seeing movies exploring how the past was really difficult for women, there’s a warmhearted sentimentality to everything in Sue Miliken’s script. Characters endure various slings and arrows but it’s nothing that would inspire social commentary. The women are all seeking individual identity, but come up against obstacles that are decidedly domestic.
Lisa wants to go be educated but her father says no women in his house need to go to college. There isn’t necessarily an explanation given for what he expects his daughter to do; marriage is never mentioned nor necessarily implied by the character as opposed to the audience. It’s just an impediment that needs to be transcended. The same with Lisa’s desire to change her name and assert her own personality. This in spite of her mother’s ditzy ignorance to her child not being a little girl anymore. These are certainly issues we’ve seen explored in other coming of age movies, but there’s no grander depths presented. There’s no discussion about how these issues affected women in Sydney specifically, or really what it says about the women of the ’50s. The audience, who have hopefully watched several movies from the era, are the ones left to come up with grander hypothesis.
The problem is the lack of complexity ends up harming storylines that demand them. Pat’s relationship with her husband is chaste for reasons that are never articulated. Fay seems to imply that he’s gay though that’s never explored. When he ultimately disappears the script seems completely done with Pat. We watch her cry, but we never know why she’s sad. Again, does this have something to do with women of the era and what being unmarried/abandoned signifies? The only storyline given any amount of significance is Fay’s and that’s mainly because it’s a cute romance between her and a foreign man (played with utter charm by Ryan Corr). The two actors are beautiful, but the movie never properly explores the white privilege mentality Fay espouses, particularly with her antipathy towards foreigners.
Then again, maybe that’s Ladies in Black’s goal; not to mine the past for present perspectives, but to give us a movie we’d be comfortable seeing in the past. Wendy Cork’s beautiful costuming, coupled with Felicity Abbott and Katie Sharrock’s production and set design, evoke pure Old Hollywood vibes. For a certain audience member, seeing beautiful women in gorgeous gowns is more than enough. Ladies in Black won’t please everyone, but for the TCM crowd it’s a solid investment. Rice and crew are good and everything they’re surrounded by is meant to astound. The ladies won’t impress you too much, but they’ll keep your attention.