It’s the most ambitious and the nicest Aussie movie in years. But is nice enough?
Ladies in Black
Bruce Beresford is one of Australia’s few remaining old-school film directors still working, and his latest work, an adaption of Madeleine St John’s nice novel about women working in a nice David Jones-ish department store in the late 50s will most likely be nicely welcomed… by old-school film goers. It literally weeps with the warm and fuzzies. We’re back in the good old days of meat and two veg, vintage frocks to die for, men who were “only after one thing” (and would “climb all over you like a billygoat to get it”), and yes, ahhh… (quick, the vapours!) Sydney still had its beloved trams. (Now relax nostalgia fans, we’re getting them back, some day when the light rail is finished – though probably not in your or my lifetimes).
And there’s nothing wrong with “nice.” Ladies in Black is an unashamedly audience-friendly story (or rather several, for we loosely follow several women); and Angourie Rice, a young Aussie actress going places for sure, is particularly lovely. Besides, it’s literally awash with subtext and nuance to get your teeth into. Much of that is written with modern sensibilities in mind though – with the “you go, clever girl” speech delivered to Rice’s character Lisa by her boss (Noni Hazlehurst) after her impressive Leaving Certificate results belonging to a later era. The birth of our modern multi-cultural nation theme too is laboured to the point of being on the nose – particularly its parallels to present-day issues. Naturally the “refos” (refugees) are wise, sophisticated and ambitious compared to those uncultured and prejudiced “dolts”, white Anglo Aussies. And so we have Magda (Julia Ormond), a classy Slovenian lady in black with a charming, intellectual husband both dispensing worldly wisdom whenever the plot demands. So does Ryan Coor, impersonating (badly) a spectacularly cliched “Continental gent” with a preposterous clipped Hungarian accent who simply wants to mansplain the obvious superiority of European culture to a “simple, nice Australian girl” (those really are his words – ouch!).
He gets that chance with Fay (Rachael Taylor), the “billygoat” lady in black, herself disenchanted with stupid Aussie blokes. The cartoonish way todays’ sexual politics are thrown into the mix are actually borderline offensive – especially Shane Jacobson (phoning in his fourth feature film role this year) as Lisa’s dip-shit dad who’s always “off to the pub.” Susie Porter in contrast, is her warm, nurturing and proactive mum. And there’s another storyline too, which at first seems superfluous, involving Alison McGirr as a neglected wife whose sexually inattentive husband (Luke Pegler) goes missing. When we’re told, “He’s a dark horse, that one,” I was dead cert we were about to get the now compulsory LGBTIQ plot line. But no – when “mere male” hubby turns up, it turns out he really was just a dolt – crap in bed because he didn’t know where to put it.
By the end, that lady in black is happily up the duff… And look, I did like Ladies in Black, it’s so damn nice and is so determined to flatter us as a nation it’s impossible not to. It sure doesn’t push any boundaries though – and in Beresford’s calculation, that’s exactly what its target audience wants. He may be right, at the packed seniors preview I attended at Palace Norton St the audience (90% female, 100% over 65) burst into applause. But if a warm inner glow doesn’t do it for you, then deconstructing those meta-story lines surely will. PG from Sept 20. ★★★ Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown
Johnny English Strikes Again
Johnny English’s first strike was in 2003, scoring a 33% critics’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one of them calling the spy spoof, “as funny as a slap in the face with a dead sea urchin.” Eight years later, he struck again, or was “reborn” as the title would have it, this time scoring 38%. The consensus view of “arguably a marginal improvement” was apparently enough to convince some incurable optimist at Universal Studios with more money than sense to try again – inevitably inviting the “three strikes and you’re out” critical verdict yet to come.
Emma Thompson plays the British PM this time, though to be honest, Theresa May is far funnier (or at least more ridiculous). Jack Lacy is the villain – a tech baron gone rogue with a plot to end the internet (actually that’s not a bad idea) while Olga Kurylenko plays a sexy Russian agent won over by Johnny English’s total lack of ability and charm. Rowan Atkinson as the the “old school” analogue-era agent brought out of retirement does what he always does best – non-stop, non-offensive slapstick more or less continuously, much of it quite amusing. Though he’ll probably regret saving the internet when reviews for his latest effort start being posted online after the embargo lifts (Sept 17). It’s rated PG for “brief nudity” when Johnny looses his pants right at the end and we get a glimpse of Mr Atkinson’s bare bottom. Laugh? My 8-year-old companion finally did… From Sept 20 at Palace Norton St, Central and Broadway.★★
Also opening this week
Reviews – Russell Edwards