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.
Dunkirk was no ordinary evacuation. Over nine days in mid-1940 almost 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops were ferried across the English channel to safety – not by the Royal Navy but mostly in fishing boats, merchantmen and yachts sailed by ordinary Englishmen. Remembered as one of history’s great escapes, the evacuation gave a boost to the Brits and, more importantly, it kept the Allies on their feet.
It’s fitting, then, that Dunkirk is no ordinary war movie. At first glance it delivers all the on-screen death and destruction we expect from a modern-day epic: men dying horribly and in droves, bombs blowing up, ships and planes going down. The carnage is appalling but what makes it especially compelling is its closeness. There’s a clarity to the film’s cinematography and sound design that draws us, its audience, into the action, casting us more as actors than onlookers. Thus we find ourselves trapped, for example, in a cabin filled with drowning men or in the cockpit of a creaking Spitfire alongside its anxious pilot.
It’s an exhilarating and excruciating experience, one made all the more powerful by the sequencing of the story. This is the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Using a technique more often associated with arthouse thrillers, Christopher Nolan presents us with three perspectives of the one event, splicing the storylines together with assiduous asynchrony, throwing them all out of time. The effect on us, his unsuspecting subjects, is unsettling. Before long, we’re as dazed and disoriented as the boys on the beach. Their eventual rescue restores our temporal equilibrium, so that the film’s climax hits us with all the impact of a triple crescendo.
And yet for all its active ingredients, Dunkirk is far from a balanced diet. A feast for the senses, it provides scant food for thought. To his credit, Nolan tries to give the film a point, by showing us that war makes monsters of men. In doing so, though, he radically dehumanises the movie’s combatants, rendering them less than lifelike. The scenes on the beach exemplify this retreat from reality. In them, soldiers queue on the sand in uniform masses, mute and unmoving, devoid of individuality and expression. Few are recognisable as people. Even the pilots are depersonalised; oxygen masks obliterate their faces and radio deadens their voices.
Nolan’s combatants are unnatural in another way too: they are, in the main, amoral beings, automatons bent only on self-preservation. The soldiers we follow struggle among themselves for survival, exploiting the injured and deserting the endangered. Only twice do they act selflessly on screen and even then their actions are shown to be futile. Missing from these figures are the myriad motives that more or less drive all mortals: the urge to impress and inspire, the desire to help others, the need to defy fate and to hope for the best. In reality, few men are so fully debased by battle; most continue to behave in complex and self-conflicting ways, some even heroically.
In Dunkirk, the heroes are not to be found in Dunkirk. Instead, Nolan’s ministering angels are civilian sailors, the old men and boys who set out from England in small boats to save the entrapped army. The film features three such folk, and all are endowed with qualities the soldiers lack: singularity, speech and scruples. Untainted by war, they appear almost lifelike, thanks to their ordinary attire and earnest exchanges, to their concern and their courage. And yet for all their humanity these civilians are barely more believable than the film’s military men: they’re just too good to be true.
As a visceral experience, Dunkirk truly excels. Like many war movies, though, it misses the metaphysical mark, as it misrepresents the actuality of battle by demeaning one side while idealising the other. No matter that the two parties – soldiers and civilians – are on the same side, because the retreat from reality remains. A beach can be evacuated with élan on the big screen and yet there’s no escaping the facts: war is more complex than that.
There you are. Stuck in prison for the rest of your life, a fraudster of the most despicable kind. For you, there’s only one way out, and that’s in a box. Since it’s only a question of when and not whether, you decide to end the suffering. Hanging it has to be.
But with what?
Cut to the future, where a couple of ‘lowlifes’ are busy quizzing your overwrought former wife about your demise. ‘What, did he use a belt?’ asks the short guy. A curt shake of the head. ‘A sheet, then,’ says the other, a muscled mechanic. The woman rounds on them. ‘No,’ she says, with a touch of pride. ‘He managed to get some rope.’
You did? What, then, does this tell you about yourself? That you wear suspenders? Probably not. That you wash your sheets daily? I doubt it. Nope, it tells you just what it told me: that you’re the kind of character you’re made out to be – a charming, well-connected confidence man.
As writers, we’re told to make every word count. Here we see the mantra in action. It’s but a minor moment in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and yet it sticks in my mind, a fine (and funny) illustration of how the masters have us hanging on every word.