Book adaptations are tricky beasts. Take the Game of Thrones series. Beloved by fans, readers, and television watchers alike, the finale season is drawing ire for a perceived underdevelopment of one of the lead characters. In the books by George R.R. Martin, this character is one of few for whom their perspective is prominent and the television series, understandably, doesn’t apply that same inner-narration on their broadcast. This makes choices seem fool-hardy or as complete character reversals when a little internal dialogue might clear up the issue. Same thing for the Hunger Game series. The films are incredible spectacles, as are the books, yet author Suzanne Collins’s use of narration enabled the audience to move past the action to the heart of the woeful tale. Difficult not to wonder if some of the magic of Madeleine St. John’s 1993 The Women in Black suffers the same frustration in its cinematic adaptation, Ladies in Black, from Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). As a whole, the film is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and exquisitely scored, capturing the whimsy of a fantastical romantic yarn. However, by spreading itself so thin among several leads, removing any sense of internal conflict, and a continual series of abrupt, nonsensical transitions, a charming adventure is significantly reduced in the confusion.
Set in 1959 Sydney, Australia, Ladies in Black follows several women who work at the F. G. Goode’s department store during the holiday season. Through temp hire Lesley Miles (Angourie Rice), the audience is introduced to co-managers Mr. Ryder (Nicholas Hammond) and Miss Cartwright (Noni Hazlehurst), sales staff Patty (Alison McGirr) and Fey (Rachael Taylor), and model gown department operator Magda (Julia Ormond). At the start of the season, each of these individuals unknowingly begins adventures that will change their lives in ways they cannot imagine by the time the holiday season ends.
No ensemble piece is even worth discussing if the right cast isn’t put to good use. In the case of Ladies in Black, the film is stacked with incredible talent which is incredibly fun to watch. Though Goode serves as the focal point for the cast, Rice’s Lesley is the character by which the narrative largely travels. She’s 16, going on 17, and getting her first job while applying to the University of Sydney. Rice’s worked on the new Spider-Man films, The Nice Guys, and The Beguilded, but is not yet a household name, so working with the likes of Ormond, Taylor, and Hazlehurst requires upping her game, which she does wonderfully. In the few months over which the story takes place, Rice’s Lesley – soon referred to as Lisa by her coworkers – goes on a journey of the spirit, where she finds the confidence to grow beyond the perception of her parents, requiring Rice to convey childish idealism before transitioning to a more adult worldview. Considering the character is intellectual by nature, the outward changes are the ones Rice focuses on conveying. McGirr is fun, despite being underserved. Her character’s journey focuses primarily on events outside the store, so Patty’s involvement often feels shoe-horned in amongst the rest of the characters. This is a problem that often befalls large casts, especially when the narrative threads branch out in various directions. However, McGirr makes the most of her time, offering a performance which endears her to the audience in spite of her generally unconnected story. Ormond is fantastic as Magda, stealing virtually every scene she’s in, as she both brings out the best performances in her co-stars while also captivating the audience. One nice aspect of the narrative is how it uses Magda, a Hungarian immigrant, to open the door for discussion of immigration, internment camps, and the horrors of war. These aspects are not particularly focused on in full, but they linger in the background. Taylor’s Fey is, perhaps, the most interesting of the performances and character arcs in the film. As first introduced, Fey appears husband-hungry and xenophobic, making her seem shallow and as a dullard, yet Taylor’s performance keeps the audience rooting for her. Especially as her back story is slowly exposed, Fey not only becomes immediately sympathetic, but Taylor’s performance up until then is acknowledged as far more nuanced.
No historical drama would be complete without the details to create it. The production design by Felicity Abbott (Upgrade), art direction by Sophie Nash (Cargo (2017)), and costume design by Wendy Cork (Predestination), not only capture the era of the story beautifully but the emotionality of the narrative. There is a romantic mood which flourishes throughout Ladies in Black and so much of it comes from how everything looks. Sydney is presented as a hub of lively activity. As the film centers on the woman who work in a department store for women, how they dress in and out of work is representative of themselves. With clothing representing aspects of station, as well as personal value, the impeccably designed costumes serve to communicate how each character views themselves. As beautiful as everything looks, the music from Christopher Gordon (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) adds the final touch to make the island in the Indian Ocean feel like paradise. In a strange way, the music is transportive, both to the time of the film and the dreamy way the characters feel about it.
As an adaptation of a book, there’re likely untold details which were adapted in order to translate from one medium to another. It’s a difficult task to figure out what to keep, what to adjust, and what to remove, but it must be done in order to get the 256-page novel into a less than 2-hour runtime. On the positive side, none of the characters are presented in ways which make them feel hollow or rushed. What is undeniable are two aspects which instantly remove the audience from the experience: narrative connectivity and abrupt scene changes. Irrelevant to whether a film tracks one character or an ensemble, there’re strong connective threads which keep them moving in and out of each other. In this case, that’s Goode’s department store. This is where the women work, so it makes sense to use this location as the space they move in and out off. However, as the stories don’t necessarily engage with each other – specifically Patty’s story, and the hinted at stories of Mr. Rider and Miss Cartwright – the excitement which comes over them all during the conclusion feels a tad overstated. Some of this notion of a lack of connectivity comes from the editing, making the opening half of the film seeming more like vignettes or scenes than pieces of a whole. For example, there’s a triple scene involving Patty, Fey, and Lisa at their respective homes, each engaging in some nighttime activity. Using the time of day, the hard jumps to each character make sense. After, however, the audience suddenly sees Lisa and Magda on a boat where they engage in stilted conversation before it cuts again and the characters are at Magda’s house. There’s something distinct missing to make the latter scenes flow. As lovely as the mechanics of Ladies in Black truly are, the narrative and editing make it difficult to fully appreciate the final film.
Taken for what it is, Ladies in Black is an airy and charming comedic drama, which uses the history of Sydney to create an engaging tale of growing up. Without having read the book, audiences will doubtlessly be delighted by the ladies of Goode’s department store who are joyous in their victories, woeful in their tragedies. In our current era of masculine-driven cinema, a female-led production which focuses not just on their sacramental opportunities, but on their personal desires and dreams, is well-timed and eagerly craved. Despite its drawbacks, Ladies in Black is a fun, charismatic tale executed by a talented ensemble clearly delighting in their roles.
No special features available at the time of review.
Available on digital May 21st, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.