Film

Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black is not just a homage to classical filmmaking and 1950s Sydney, it is also a window into the cultural richness brought by post-World War II refugees. If only it had pushed darker themes further. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Ladies in Black

Ladies in Black stars (above, from left) Alison McGirr, Rachael Taylor and Angourie Rice.
Credit: Sony Pictures / Lisa Tomasetti

There is a moment in Bruce Beresford’s new film, Ladies in Black, set in 1959–60 in Sydney, when a young Hungarian refugee, Rudi, played by Ryan Corr, takes a working-class Australian shop assistant, Fay (Rachael Taylor), to see her first foreign film. The film he chooses is Gervaise, René Clément’s 1956 adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel L’Assommoir. Fay is captivated and moved by the film; the scene is introduced with a close-up on her, the projected light falling on her face as the tears fall.

Ostensibly the scene is there to further one of the key themes of the film, the cultural enrichment that post-World War II immigrants and refugees brought to a then largely Anglo and tediously monocultural Australia. But I sense a deliberate and provocative intention in Beresford’s choice of film. Clément is one of the French directors that the iconoclastic young turk François Truffaut had attacked in his essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”, published in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1954. In that essay the then 22-year-old Truffaut attacked the cinéma de papa, the previous generation of French filmmakers who he deemed overly concerned with the literary qualities of film. He argued they were mistaken in adapting the classic realist novels, that they were not making films that spoke to the existential tumult of the contemporary age. It was films such as Gervaise that were in his sights. The essay is one of the foundational texts of what is to emerge as the “auteur theory”, the prioritisation of the director as the key creative artist in film.

For Beresford, whose career began during the 1970s Australian film renaissance and was consolidated in the 1980s and 1990s in Hollywood, literary and theatrical adaptations have been key to his filmmaking practice. His most famous film is still arguably 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, adapted from a play and the winner of four Academy Awards. The more cynical among us might sneeringly refer to it as “Oscar bait” – topical but uncontroversial politics, iconic actors, a classic three-act structure – but it is undeniable that he is a director of assured and consistent talent. I think the choice of Rudi introducing Fay to Gervaise indicates how we are to view and experience his new film. Beresford is staking a claim for the continuing importance of traditional popular cinema. His is a cinema of collaboration, not of sole authorship.

And undoubtedly the greatest charm of his new film is how satisfyingly old-fashioned it is. Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black, it is a comedy about a group of women who work in a Sydney department store. Alongside Fay, there is also Patty (Alison McGirr), who is married to an emotionally withdrawn labourer, Frank (Luke Pegler), and a new assistant, Lisa, played by Angourie Rice, who sees the job as a stopgap before university. There are two older women as well, Miss Cartwright, played by Noni Hazlehurst, and the sophisticated Slovenian immigrant, Magda, played by English actress Julia Ormond. Magda observes that Lisa is intellectually curious, and quietly takes her under her wing. This is the key relationship in the film, the mentoring of the young naive Lisa by the more experienced and world-weary immigrant. It is Magda, and also her husband, Stefan (Vincent Perez), a Hungarian immigrant, who will gently nudge her to further develop her tastes in literature and in music. This relationship is mirrored by the romance between Rudi and Fay. Fay has become exhausted of the inept and lewd attempts at flirtation by Australian men, and Rudi’s gentle and generous seduction makes her overcome both her fear of “refos” and her suspicion of the opposite sex. Rudi keeps proclaiming the beauty of his new country, he calls it Paradise. But Ladies in Black suggests that it is only with the arrival of the “New Australians” that an Eden became possible.

It is an inspirational sentiment and Beresford and his co-writer, Sue Milliken, clearly want us to draw links between mid-20th century anxieties about immigration and contemporary fears of asylum seekers. Just as serious, and perhaps even more of a concern, is the portrayal of the limited opportunities for women in Menzies-era Australia. A constant source of both comedy and tension is Lisa’s father’s disdaining of his daughter going to university. He is played by Shane Jacobson with a stereotypical but winning larrikin glee, and the comedy arises from the way his wife, played by Susie Porter, has learnt to negotiate his moods and vices in getting her way. There are glimpses of dark undercurrents in the sexist expectations for both women and men – the constant lubrication with alcohol; the sexual confusion that threatens Patty and Frank’s relationship; and most poignantly, the underplayed but chillingly effective sense we have of the compromises that Hazlehurst’s Miss Cartwright has had to make in her life.

But Beresford is not going to let the darkness in for too long. Ladies in Black is a loving homage to his native Sydney. The cinematography by Peter James frames the city in a perpetual summer light, and the art direction by Sophie Nash is stylised but tastefully simple, and attentive to the glorious palette of 1950s colour cinema. This is also true of Wendy Cork’s costume design. The film looks ravishing. The film can also be said to be a homage to the cinema of Hollywood classicist George Cukor. Beresford shares Cukor’s lightness of touch as well as the unapologetic commitment to pleasing a popular audience. And as in Cukor films such as The Women, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib, there is a prioritising of women’s experiences and of the female actors. There is great joy to be had in watching such a terrific ensemble, with Hazlehurst, Ormond, Porter, Rice and Taylor all giving deft and beautifully paced performances. The male actors are appealing and elegant but they all know that they are playing second fiddle to the women, and so their good grace is also winning. The Cukor films were one of the reasons, as a young kid, I fell in love with cinema, and seeing talented actors seemingly having so much fun is alone worth the price of the ticket. I saw the film in a packed screening and the audience was clearly enraptured by it, the laughter and good cheer infectious.

Yet, am I being churlish in wishing there was a little more darkness let in? The standout performance, for me, was McGirr’s Patty. The script hints at uncomfortable and disquieting sexual tensions between husband and wife but the writing refuses to explore them. The resolution to their marital problems feels pat and unsatisfying. McGirr’s steely and nervy performance is outstanding. She doesn’t undermine the comedy but she also gives us an understanding of the frustration and emerging stain of bitterness that defines Patty’s character. It is through McGirr’s performance that we sense the rage and the desire for freedom that will spur the emergence of women’s liberation within a decade.

The history of postwar migration to Australia remains largely untold in our national cinema. Ladies in Black extols the cultural heritage of some of those refugees and immigrants, but in wishing to remain light-hearted and effervescent, it is largely silent about the pain of exile and the wearying toll of racism and xenophobia on the migrant. It is also oblivious to the connection of that racism to the colonial and imperialist past. Of course, that isn’t the story Beresford and Milliken set out to tell. But it isn’t 1959 any longer, and the silence of that part of the migration story is a distinct lack in this film. There is a running joke in Ladies in Black about how all artists and intellectuals have left the country. Beresford’s looking back to the Australia he knew as a child is winsome and delicate, yet I wonder if there isn’t a certain loss that comes from his spending so many years in Hollywood? I don’t recognise the Australia in this film. I don’t think I’ve ever lived there. We are all familiar with the trope that claims a migrant enshrines her country of origin in aspic, and that through exile and nostalgia, their vision of “home” is embalmed forever at the moment of their leaving. Ladies in Black suggests that for the émigré artists who left Australia chasing the literary dreams of London or the filmmaking successes of Hollywood, the same phenomenon is at play.

In Truffaut’s films of the 1970s, in masterpieces such as Two English Girls, The Story of Adéle H., and in Day for Night, the French director was almost deliberately contradicting the theses of his 1954 essay. The first two films are highly literary, and at a deliberate distance from the radical implications of the post-May 1968 theorising that saw his contemporaries rejecting narrative cinema. The exquisite Day for Night, a film about a director, played by Truffaut, making a film similar to Day for Night, was a celebration of the artifice and pleasure of cinema. Truffaut’s trajectory suggests that filmmaking isn’t an either/or proposition, that the “young turk” and “papa” can be reconciled.

As does the cinema of Bruce Beresford. I love the early work he made in Australia: the bloody crime thriller Money Movers; the melancholy comedy that is his adaptation of Puberty Blues; the deliberate vulgarity and up-yours chutzpah of the Barry McKenzie films; and the wit of Don’s Party, one of the greatest comedy of manners ever to come out of this country.

In 1959, Truffaut was to make The 400 Blows, a film that was urgently of the moment and formally audacious, and part of a wave that was to transform cinema around the globe, including here in Australia. Its spirit, if not the film itself, clearly influenced the work of a young Bruce Beresford. In Ladies in Black he has chosen to be faithful to his love of classical Hollywood, and faithful to his nostalgia for the Australia of his childhood. The result is a pleasing and entertaining film. But I wish it were more bold, that it took more risks, that it had the spikiness and verve and challenge that is there in McGirr’s performance. I think the story of migration to this country deserves that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Women on the verge". Subscribe here.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap and Barracuda. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.