Culture

Film & Television

The male gaze of ‘Ladies in Black’

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Bruce Beresford’s adaptation lacks the charm and pathos of the classic novel

Watching Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black, adapted from Madeleine St John’s classic yet until-recently forgotten 1993 novel The Women in Black, my mind unexpectedly juxtaposes the setting of Goode’s Department Store with another fictional emporium: Frankenberg’s from Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Even in the chaos of a children’s toy department during the Christmas rush, Haynes makes visible the relationship between consumption and lust when Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) lock eyes across the counter.

Part of consumerism’s allure is the pleasure of the gaze, much like that of cinema itself. When we become fixated on an object of desire, we not only crave possession – we imagine the [insert desired attribute] person we’ll become when we own it. Haynes transforms Carol’s lost gloves, draped suggestively across the countertop, into the ultimate erotic symbol: an invitation, an absence begging to be filled. They hint at the sophisticate whom innocent Therese Belivet will become under Carol’s tutelage. It’s no coincidence that this takes place in a department store, that fading metaphor of the emergent consumer society.

The many shortcomings of Ladies in Black are encapsulated in the moment that Lesley, a plain-Jane teen who remakes herself as Lisa when she joins the sales team for Goode’s holiday rush, first lays eyes on “Lisette” – a ball dress from the exclusive Model Gowns department, which becomes the focus of her affections. “Lisa stood, gazing her fill,” writes St John in the original novel. “She was experiencing for the first time that particular species of love-at-first-sight … the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to one’s deepest notions of oneself.”

Lesley-performing-Lisa is emblematic of St John’s particular wit, poking tender fun at the Antipodean yearning for urbanity. (One might compare the author herself pronouncing her surname “St John” as Synjin.) But oh, to be Lisette – the dress will transform Lesley/Lisa into the poet she yearns to be, she knows it, a world away from the brick-veneered ’burbs where she’s grown up.

Seen through Beresford’s eyes, however, the dress is nothing more than a silver puff on a plastic mannequin, deflated by lighting more akin to Kmart fluorescents than anything befitting aspirational wonderland Goode’s, where the pianist strikes the day’s first chord on a baby grand just before the doors open. It’s folly to compare Australian cinema’s production values to those of even modest Hollywood independents, considering their budgetary discrepancies, but for a film whose marketing campaign peddles the sumptuous (with its costumes wheeled out at every promotional event) it’s astounding how chintzy the result is.

Both Carol and Ladies in Black offer nostalgic visions of the 1950s, through a queer romance and an ensemble dramedy (verging on family film) respectively. Yet where Haynes quickly delves beneath the lush façades of a lost Manhattan to rupture the era’s suffocating moral strictures, Ladies in Black revels in a forgotten Sydney’s glossy surfaces, with obviously CGI shop fronts and so many shots of the Harbour Bridge that one suspects some tourism dollars were involved. Beresford is flogging a delusion of the egalitarian land o’ plenty, where masculine cruelty is unconsciously writ by bumbling blokes, and xenophobia can be fixed by the discovery that salami is, of course, delicious.

From the opening shots of Ladies in Black we know that this is not a female gaze. When the retail army arrives, shedding their bright floral dresses for monochromatic fatigues, extreme close-ups dismember their bodies into fragments: lips painted into a full red mouth, a glimpse of bare thigh as stockings clip to garter belt, eyelashes being curled around a wide eye. As the film proceeds, female friendship, with all its complications, is stripped of the joy and frisson that practically bursts from the novel’s pages. In comparison, Beresford’s characters are paper dolls.

In the Text Classics reissue of the original novel, Beresford writes an introduction titled “Madeleine and Me” about his friendship with St John. He tellingly begins his retrospection with an extended description of St John’s avian appearance, her “beak-like nose” relegating her to backstage duties with the Sydney University Players, where they met. Can a director who debuted with ocker sex romp The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) ever learn the mysterious ways of sheilas?

Angourie Rice, who plays Lisa, is endearing – at 17 years old, she’s already had Hollywood roles in Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – but all edges are rounded. She’s pure, wide-eyed girlishness, with none of St John’s intimations that, despite the bright teenager’s promise, this is a world that crushes intelligent girls – and, indeed, tall poppies from the wrong suburbs. Instead, Beresford and co-writer Sue Milliken bludgeon us with girl-power speeches, saccharine, nauseating and hollow.

The script labours under the misapprehension that adaptation from literature to cinema equates to a numbing of meaning. Beresford fails to find a cinematic language for the book’s multi-voiced ensemble, cutting between the stories of Goode’s staff without much rhythm, often distilling scenes down to their basest plot points. This peripatetic flow prevents the audience from caring very much for these characters’ fates.

Fay, the simple Aussie blonde who’s courted by “reffo” Rudi (Ryan Corr), gets drawn out as a vehicle for Rachael Taylor (Red Dog; Transformers). As much as Beresford’s camera insists that Taylor is a movie star, there never seems to be much happening beyond the perfectly symmetrical planes of her face. Strong actors, too, are remarkably under-utilised: Susie Porter is washed out as Lisa’s mother, Mrs Miles; Noni Hazelhurst as spinster manager Miss Cartright is bestowed an obvious monologue blessing intelligent girls, where an exaggerated squint tells us her own talents were squandered; Shane Jacobson plays Shane Jacobson playing Lisa’s reticent-bloke father; English actress Julia Ormond’s bizarre accent as Slovenian refugee Magda is explained away by some time spent in France.

Fleeting moments of female intimacy – Lisa mimicking Dracula fangs with her fingers to her giggling co-workers, Lisa and her mum singing Volare in the front yard – are short and sweet, a tantalising glimpse of what could’ve been. It’s as if all the budget were spent on the dresses (oh, but have you seen the dresses!) rather than, say, rehearsals.

What elevates Madeline St John’s novel from a simple satire of the Australian lower-middle class is the pathos that buttresses it. She’s never sneering, as contemporaries like Barry Humphries (who gave birth to Barry McKenzie) sometimes were, but instead movingly articulates a longing for a wider world. Her larger-than-life characters still feel fully realised and poignant in their failings. Shop girls Lisa, Fay, Myra and Magda are on the precipice of something more, in a world where they must reign in their desires.

When Ladies in Black is being sold as Beresford’s dream project, it’s bemusing that he’s wrenched most of the charm from a book that positively brims with it. Tim Finn and Carolyn Burns’ delightful stage musical adaptation in 2015 proved that popularisation doesn’t have to be anaesthetising. Yet here we get a fantasy of conspicuous consumption and multicultural harmony, where all differences are obliterated in the glare of the Sydney sun. Where characters repeatedly proclaim Australia is the lucky country, ignoring Donald Horne’s warning about the “second-rate people” who share in its fortunes.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

Ladies in Black. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

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