Photo | Lumila Films
If you loved the “Downton Abbey” movie and wished you could just watch nice period films that were not too terribly suspenseful all the time, you are not alone and I have a real find for you. If you like costumes, accents and nice little love stories, “Ladies in Black” fits the bill, beautifully. Set in Australia in 1959, the ladies of the title are salespeople at Goode’s, an upscale department store in Sydney, and in a gentle way, the film is a slice of life as women face obstacles both perennial and topical.
Shy, bespectacled Lisa is the only child of overprotective parents, taking a temporary job at Goode’s while she awaits her school exit exam results. Her gruff but decent-ish father totally dismisses the idea of her going to college because she is a girl, and scenes of Lisa scheming with her mother to get his permission to apply for a scholarship are quietly telling, and very moving.
Lisa’s grown co-workers Fay and Patty are impressed by her quick mind, but are absorbed by problems of their own. Fay is single and longs for wider horizons than the clods she dates, while Patty is married to a sweet fellow who is also, alas, something of a clod. But both look down on Magda (Julia Ormond) a refugee or “reffo” who reigns over the couture floor of the store.
While none of their problems seem terribly urgent, every story unfolds with delicacy and charm that draws you into a world that is nostalgic, but also realistic, about issues like immigration and women’s rights. These thorny issues are addressed and resolved in believably timid and incremental terms that are actually rather satisfying, if small in scale. Is there a country-wide resolution of racism against refugees in this film? No. Do several characters have their horizons broadened by meeting these people, and are a few minds changed? Yes.
You can see everything that happens to the characters from a mile away, but you’re still happy to see it when it gets here. Lisa, who is already intelligent and sophisticated in her own right, begins spending time with the intimidating Magda, who ends up being rather good-hearted (of course). The scenes among Magda, her husband and their other Middle European immigrant friends are bittersweet but also delightful, as they share traditions, music and food, but also talk of the terrible difficulties that drove them from their homes.
Ormond gives a moving, subtle performance, from the time that she swans into the upper echelons of the department store until she shows us the pain she holds underneath. She might be professionally concerned with stylish women’s clothing, but in her private moments, she shows us, even in her posture and bearing, how much she has lost.
As Fay gets better acquainted with a Hungarian refugee, she realizes how sheltered she has been. From realizing the struggles that she has been spared to Lisa’s father expanding his palate to the pleasures of salami, red wine and olives, the native Australians’ lives get better when they open their hearts and minds. It’s a simple enough message, but “Ladies in Black” is special because it is simply delightful. The story does not have to be shocking to be meaningful and the characters are somewhat familiar but also real.
“Ladies in Black” is currently available to rent.
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