Ladies in Black
Opens: September 20
Genre: Period comedy-drama
Duration: 109 minutes

I doubt Sydney on the cusp of the 1960s has ever been painted in such loving detail as in this retitled adaptation of Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel about the lives of women working in an upmarket department store.

Veteran filmmaker Bruce Beresford has gone all out to make this light-hearted, gently sentimental comedy-drama above all a sensual experience, closer in spirit to 1957 Audrey Hepburn vehicle Funny Face than camp TV dross like Are You Being Served? From the eye-popping colours of the period’s fabulous floral dresses to the snapped suspenders and silk petticoats beneath, this is a film above all for women who love fashion.

But Ladies in Black is also a must for every Nostalgia Tragic of any gender who’s ever been spellbound by photographs of a long-gone Australia when grandiose department stores took up entire blocks and hired classical pianists to serenade the New Year’s Day sales crowds; a Sydney where green trams glided elegantly down every city street packed with people who bothered to dress up to go shopping. Beresford’s film makes this all look very real, immediate and seductive.

At the same time this is not an entirely admiring view of the period. For here is an Australia where attitudes are frequently narrow, culture and education often viewed with suspicion, non-Anglos are suspect and gender roles strict. Husbands expect dinner on the table at the allotted time despite their wives being working women. Working class dads (hello Shane Jacobson) aren’t exactly brimming with pride for their daughters’ stellar school exam results and university ambitions.

But in the film’s light-hearted view, these are all seen not as crushing forms of oppression but as annoying problems that would and could be worked upon. Life for these women is mostly improved by the film’s end thanks to the civilising effect of European immigrants with their apparently exotic tastes, worldliness and culture. It’s a romantic, though unobjectionable, notion.

True to the spirit of St John’s novel, there is no obvious central plot in this film, rather a gentle series of vignettes dissecting the lives of four assistants in the women’s clothing department of fictional store Goode’s under the watchful eye of Noni Hazlehurst’s joyless supervisor.

The closest to a lead character is the store’s 16-year-old newcomer (rising star Angourie Rice), who is taken under the wing of the elegantly middle-aged Slovenian migrant in charge of the elite frocks department (Julia Ormond doing her best Juliette Binoche impersonation). An education in exotic East European food and literary appreciation follows. Rachael Taylor and relative newcomer Alison McGirr shine as two best friends on the shop floor, while Ryan Corr’s charm offensive as an eligible Hungarian bachelor helps him get away with a Count Dracula accent.

Ladies in Black is in cinemas now