Interview: The cast of Ladies in Black describe the joy of making this true-blue Australian story

Bruce Beresford’s new film, Ladies in Black is a charming look at some department store shop girls working in Sydney in 1959. The story is adapted from a novel by the late, Madeleine St John who attended university with Clive James and the famous director. The film was a labour of love that was some 24 years in the making. At the red carpet event in Sydney the excitement for the finished film was palpable.

Some readers of The AU Review may be familiar with Ladies in Black thanks to the musical that toured nationally. Tim Finn wrote the wonderful music and the production won several Helpmann awards. The film’s co-writer and producer, Sue Milliken said the musical was a separate entity to the film. One of Finn’s songs appears during the end credits and his daughter, Harper sings it, but that is where any crossover finishes.

For Beresford, he always wanted to make St John’s story into a straight, coming-of-age drama. He used this approach because he was drawn in by St. John’s original story. As Milliken says: “It’s one of the best kind of stories because it is deceptively simple. You read it and you think, ‘This is a nice little story’ and then you look deeper and everything is there underneath. It’s actually a very complex story. But it appears to be simple and it appears to be charming and funny but has a very serious message. It’s the best kind of story.”

At the opening night presentation Beresford said he was very proud to have made this film. It was obvious to anyone talking to the cast that there was a lot of joy on this particular film set. Celia Massingham described the experience as one of the most remarkable ones she’d ever had. Home and Away’s Alison McGirr added: “It was incredible on-set, the passion and excitement that we were actually doing it was pretty awesome.”

Alison McGirr, Celia Massingham

The plot to Ladies in Black is a pleasant one. It should prove the perfect complement to the warming Spring-time weather. It also follows the novel’s source material rather closely. McGirr found she could relate to her character Patty because she too is a family-oriented woman who comes from a tight-knit, Irish clan.

The actors all had different ways of preparing for their roles. Ryan Corr deliberately avoided seeing the musical because he didn’t want to muddy his presentation. Susie Porter meanwhile, was diligent in her approach: “I read the novel and I read it a couple of times and took lots of notes and highlighted a lot of things. So I got all of the stuff I needed to know from that.”

The cast had differing opinions abou why people should see the film. Industry darling, Noni Hazlehurst said, “Because yet again for a miniscule budget by international standards – Australians who are at the top of the game – have made a beautiful film. It’s a human story. It has relevance to everybody in the West, really. It happens to be shot in Australia with Australians. But it’s a story of teens and equality and acceptance and those themes are universal.”

Massingham believes the film makes people smile. She added that we need films where people have a good time because that’s what cinema is all about. Porter agreed and expanded on this theme saying: “I think people should come and see it because it’s a feel-good story; it’s one for the girls. I think it’s a time in Australia that’s really kind of a gorgeous and an important part – with the late fifties coming into the sixties. It’s happy and we love the fashions so I think people should go and see it because they’ll have a really good time. Grab your girlfriends and go and see it!” But perhaps Corr summed it up best when he charmed, “Nans and Mums and daughters everywhere will love it! I said to my Mum, ‘You’ll like this one!'”

Ladies in Black is in cinemas from 20th September 2018.