By 1959, Sydney's tram network was in disrepair. Lines had been closing down since the late 1930s; despite public opposition, removal of the service was government policy thanks to congested streets, competition from buses and private cars, and a general lack of investment. Deliberately run down and rickety, the entire network - once the largest in Australia and one of the largest in the world - would be gone by 1962.
Sydney 1959 - specifically, the lead-in to Christmas - is also when Bruce Beresford's latest film Ladies in Black is set. It's a sunny, polished, feel-good tale centered on the staff of the high-class department store Goode’s (think David Jones), where the floor staff – named the “ladies in black” – guide the women of Sydney in their fashion needs.
For sixteen year-old Lisa (Angourie Rice), it’s a holiday job between high school and (she hopes) university; for Fay (Rachael Taylor) it’s love that’s paramount (and the Aussie blokes aren’t measuring up); Patty (Alison McGirr) has a man but the spark isn’t there; and for migrant Magda (Julia Ormond) who runs the store's fashion gown department, Lisa is someone she can take under her wing and show the world to – well, the European side of it at least.
The tram Fay repeatedly travels to work on is in perfect heritage condition; if the Sydney trams really were looking that good in 1959 they’d still be running today. But you don’t need to know the real-life state of Sydney trams to tell this is a look at the past through glasses so rose-coloured it’s hard to see much of anything clearly through them. Here controlling dads really mean well, deadbeat husbands really mean well, racism is limited to using the term “reffo” and it doesn’t matter that the Nazis conscripted you to run their railways so long as you have a good heart. Where were those Nazi trains going again?
The mood is pleasant enough, but this near total lack of dramatic tension – if this was what 1959 was really like it’s hard to see why anyone would have rebelled against anything in the 60s – only throws the films other flaws into high relief. The cast can’t do much with their one-note characters but some manage better than others; a basic rule of thumb is the better the 50s outfit the better the character comes across. The constant raising then dismissing of issues gives it the veneer of facing up to the hard facts of mid-century Australia, but the suffocating blandness means just about everything simply… works out.
Girls can go to university (on a scholarship!), sexual issues are resolved with a snuggle, poor people from the country know their place (not in Goode’s), foreigners just mean everyone else gets different food to try, gays are free to perv at hot guys on the beach and Melbourne is a crap town everyone makes fun of. All this wrapped in constant sunshine and stylised gloss that gives this competently forgettable film the look of a tourism video sent forward in an attempt to lure time travellers back to 1959.
Then again, the casting of Shane Jacobson as the kind of knockabout decent Aussie bloke he’s played to the point of cliché and beyond suggests that this really is some kind of tourism video. One aimed at overseas audiences selling them on a fundamentally welcoming and intellectually lively Australia that – much like those pristine 1959 Sydney trams – never really existed.
- Anthony Morris