Ladies in Black

Bruce Beresford (2018)

I love a nice department store. While the biggies like Harvey Nicks, Selfridges, John Lewis and such have a level of allure to the addict-consumer in me, I much prefer the local department stores, ones that have a bit of history and personality; the kind of place that really goes all out with the Christmas decorations. I think most of them were bought out by House of Fraser, sometimes still run under their original branding so as not to alienate the denizens of whichever town they’ve moved into. Now, of course, it all sits in Mike Ashley’s grubby mitts, so who knows. 

But you know the sort of place I mean: Jenner’s in Edinburgh (for now), or Rackham’s in Altrincham (Kendal’s in Manchester until 2005). You’ve also got Hooper’s in Wilmslow. You walk in and in addition to the familiar mid-range fashion and household brands, you’ve also got that sense of local history, of identity: families shopping there for decades, as much a part of civic culture as the town hall or museum.

As steeped in tradition as these stores are, each with a story to tell and its own speciality cake in the obligatory cafe, there is a sense of faded grandeur about them all, rather like one of the ageing, sprawling hotels on the Nice promenade, populated with ghosts of better times and surrounded by dog poop-covered pavements.

So you start to imagine what these places were like in the glory days: not only before Amazon started dominating the retail landscape, but before even out of town retail parks or every town having the same names decorating their high streets. Days when these places were the shopping hubs for everyone in their town, where you bought everything from your pressure cookers with their whirling, whistling tops, to your poshest frock.

I do feel a bit of a guilty pleasure when watching something like Carol or the Marvellous Mrs. Maisel*, and you see reconstructions of what these places were like (though I have no doubt that in New York City, the big names are as they were) in their heyday, usually around Christmas time. Which brings me to the most recent film I’ve seen (at the time I started writing this, a week and a half ago): Ladies in Black.

Set in Sydney in 1959, Ladies in Black is most definitely one of those feelgood, stress-free sponge and custard films. There’s not much in the way of peril. We have four main characters, all working in the local Goode’s department store: the veteran shop assistants Fay (Rachael Taylor) and Patty (Alison McGirr, reminiscent in appearance and attitude to Joan from Mad Men); Lisa (Angourie Rice), the young, wide-eyed girl who is full of potential; and Magda (Julia Ormond), who is frowned upon for being a “reffo” (refugee), but predictably is more stylish and cultured by those who are trying to claim superiority based on being born in Australia. Obviously, whites born in Australia trying to claim any kind of moral superiority invites its own scorn on multiple levels.

Fay and Patty are the lifers, cliquey and superior, but decent deep down, and managed by the warm, maternal Miss Cartwright (Noni Hazlehurst). Film starts as we see Lisa begin her tenure at Goode’s: she makes newbie mistakes that Fay and Patty take her to task for, but it’s clear to the audience that Lisa has potential far outstripping her entry-level role potential spotted by Magda, who is not part of the clique due to being foreign, but effortlessly good at her job (and a far better saleswoman than Fay or Patty).

So the key character journeys are young Lisa finding her niche in life (even if that’s not in the store), Magda doing her level best to facilitate Lisa’s destiny-finding, and Fay overcoming her Australian-birth supremacy and snootiness by falling in love with an insanely charming reffo, Rudi (Ryan Corr), along with the exotic ways of these seemingly unknowable foreigners. I won’t try to understand the Patty storyline. In addition to these, there are subjourneys of Lisa’s dad (brilliantly played by Shane Jacobson) learning to let go of his little girl and Lisa being able to buy a posh frock she wants. Because not every ambition is noble, and it’s nice to show the shop as its own character.

The tone of the film being so light, there was a risk that everything would be too airy. However, veteran director Beresford (he’s directed a lot of things over the decades, but I only really know him for Driving Miss Daisy) smoothly swerves that pitfall by folding in nuance via family disputes, inter-departmental rivalry and of course the trifold issue of racism, immigration and integration. 

And it works! My life wasn’t changed by Ladies in Black, but I was entertained, it never dragged, and I may need to watch more stuff featuring Jacobson or Taylor. I understand Rachael Taylor is in those short-lived Marvel Comics/Netflix series…

* This is not to say Carol is as light as Ladies in Black or Marvellous Mrs. Maisel; I think it’s an absolutely brilliant character study and portrayal of what marriage and gay life were like back in 1952. The presentation of the Frankenberg’s department store in which Therese works is just the icing on the cake.

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