Bruce Beresford has wanted to make Ladies in Black for almost 25 years. The veteran Australian director first purchased an option on The Women in Black, the beloved novel by the late Madeleine St John, when it was published in 1994 – and he can call St John an old friend.

"She was exactly the same age as me, she was at university with me and she lived through that period of course," he says. "She had much the same experiences."

Ladies in Black follows Lisa (Angourie Rice), a young girl who takes a temporary job as a sales assistant to help with the Christmas rush at Goode's, a prestigious Sydney department store. There, Lisa is enamoured with the glamourous Magda, who runs the high-fashion department and is swept under the wings of sales ladies Patty and Fay. As 1959 Australia changes with the arrival of European migrants, Lisa both comes of age and leaves a profound impact on the women around her.

While St John sadly won't be able to see the cinematic vision of her novel – she passed away after a battle with emphysema in 2006 – Beresford says her spirit is running throughout the film.


"Madeleine was the young girl in [Ladies in Black]," he says. "She worked at David Jones, the department store, and she was befriended by this Eastern European woman, on whom Magda was based. Madeleine based all of [the characters] on people that she knew. That's why they ring true."

Bruce Beresford and Angourie Rice behind the scenes of Ladies in Black. Photo / supplied
Bruce Beresford and Angourie Rice behind the scenes of Ladies in Black. Photo / supplied

Beresford, 78, remembers 1959 very well, and the attitudes depicted in the film reflect that. Lisa's own parents are frosty towards migrants - and they're not alone. Sweeping words like "continentals" are thrown around by characters in the film without care.

"I remember my mother sounding off about how she didn't like the people from Malta, the Baltic states, Eastern Europe," says Beresford. "It was just about everybody she was hostile about. So I was able to use some of her attitudes in the film.

"That era in Australia, when all the migrants arrived from 1950 onwards, meant tremendous changes in Australian society. Everything changed – the way people lived, the way they ate."

St John's novel dealt with these issues with a touch of humour and good nature – something Beresford wanted to translate on to the screen. "I didn't want that to be heavy-handed. It's what I like so much about the book – that [St John] did it with a light touch," he says. "It's full of good nature; it's full of goodwill towards people."

Beresford also saw the contemporary relevance of looking back at a time in Australia's history in which migration was a topical issue. "I can remember when I was a kid, there was a big migrant camp near where I lived in Sydney, and there was considerable hostility to those people. Just like there is now," he says.

"That was one of the things that used to appal me when I was a kid," he says. "A lot of them had come from Hungary, they'd survived a revolution against the communists in 1956, they'd come out, they were destitute - I thought, 'Why the hostility, why not welcome them?' And I feel the same way now about the migrants that the Australians have put on islands in the Pacific. What a disgrace. They should be welcomed."

Beresford has made more than 30 films, including iconic features such as Driving Miss Daisy and Puberty Blues. Ladies in Black is his first set in his home country in nine years, and he gushes about the experience of working back home with Australian actors.

"I'd been obsessed with doing it for so long, that it was wonderful to at last be able to do it," he says. "It was an enjoyable film to make. The actors were all very enthusiastic about the roles, and they all liked their characters, which makes it a lot easier.

"Sometimes you do films where the actors have taken a role because they need the money and they're often a bit indifferent about it, but that was certainly not the case."

And with such an illustrious career under his belt, Beresford shows no signs of slowing down.

"I get excited by a subject, character, situation, political condition or economic condition, and I think, 'I've got to tell everybody about this because it's so interesting, I want them all to know,'" he says. "And I think that just goes on from film to film. It's just like telling a bedtime story, but I do it with a film."

Who: Bruce Beresford
What: Ladies in Black
When: In theatres September 20