madeleine st john
Aussie, Aussie, quite contrary – how does your country grow?
In three ways, according to Bruce Beresford’s latest film, Ladies in Black, a pointed, semi-poignant parody of life in 1950s Australia, a land where men are ‘gormless’, women are entrusted with the sacred task of putting tea on the table, and where a department store – Goode’s, the proud purveyor of robes and respectability – becomes the scene of social change of a far-reaching kind.
Based on a novel by Madeleine St John, the movie dramatises the workings of a trio of transformative forces – immigration, regeneration and education – by tracing three distinct stories: the tales of Fay, Patty and Lisa, the eponymous ‘ladies in black’.
Fay is restless and romantic, a good-looking girl put off by the boorish behaviour of the ‘Australian’ men she usually meets. Enter Magda, the stylish Slovenian mistress of Goode’s high-fashion department. She introduces Fay to an urbane ‘refo’ called Rudi, and the two fall swiftly in love. Vowing to learn the ways of her husband-to-be, Fay sets out on a new path, her life – and the life of the nation – irrevocably altered by immigration.
Her pal behind the counter, Patty, has a different problem: her husband hardly touches her. A shy boy from the bush, Frank is deeply ashamed of his desires. He worships women, and the thought that he might have harmed his wife drives him briefly into exile. By putting Frank’s fears to rest, Patty succeeds in remaking her man, who, in a matching act of regeneration, plants the seed that will see them grow up and out of themselves, out of the old world and into the new.
For sixteen-year-old Lisa (née Leslie), it is learning that promises to free her from the present. A ‘clever girl’ who goes to Goode’s as a temp, Lisa loves literature – she reads Anna Karenina on a park bench before reciting poetry later in bed – and has her heart set on going to university, despite the objections of her philistine father. An actress, a poet, a novelist – there’s no limit to what Lisa thinks she can be. And, thanks to the reformative power of education, her future does indeed look bright.
By movie’s end, the lives of these three ‘ladies in black’ have been altered forever: powerful forces have dispelled the darkness and led them into the light of a remodelled land. Like the film itself, which, it must be said, makes only mildly amusing viewing, this vision of national growth is simplistic and sentimental. Therein, though, lies its charm.
From Goode’s to better, Australia awaits its best.