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Film reviews: The Insult & Ladies in Black

Film

They are worlds apart in setting, but Lebanese thriller The Insult and Australian drama Ladies in Black both show how films are windows not just into our current world but into the power of our history – and stories, writes Susan Mitchell.

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The Insult, directed by Ziad Doueiri, Lebanon’s candidate for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a gripping dramatic journey beginning with a personal disagreement and ending in a conflict that consumes a city and a nation.

Two blokes have an argument over a gutter pipe that is dripping water from an apartment terrace onto the street below, and apologies are demanded after harsh words have been exchanged.

It is an everyday occurrence in most cities or neighbourhoods throughout the world. Why, then, does it escalate into a metaphor for a civil war?

The two main characters – Tony (Adel Karam), a garage owner and a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the foreman on a construction crew and a Palestinian – are both still fighting Lebanon’s civil war which supposedly ended in 1990.

Their resentment and hatred of each other are embedded in their memories. Each man views his current identity as intricately connected to his past; neither will back down or move on.

This personal conflict based on the politics of the past escalates into something outside of their control, especially when the lawyers take over in the courtroom and the news media do the rest.

The viewer sees the arguments from both sides but always underlined is the men’s stubborn refusal to back down.  To their male egos, an apology is a humiliation. And of course we realise that this is how wars begin and hatreds continue to fester. This is why the personal is political.

This Insult is full of energy, emotion, dramatic twists and turns, and it is impossible not to be riveted by its conflicts. The acting is powerful and emotional.

Fortunately, there is no simplistic Hollywood ending, but there is some advancement of understanding and mutual respect. And that is a start.

——

AUSTRALIAN film Ladies in Black is a far cry from the conflicts of the Middle East, but while charming and seemingly lightweight, it has its own history lesson for Australians which still resonates today.

Set in 1959 Sydney, when the so-called “refos” brought their cultural values from war-torn Europe to a white-bread, “she’ll be right mate” unsophisticated Australia, it focuses on the women who sold cocktail dresses in Goodes Department store (David Jones).

Women’s fashion is the metaphor for a comedy of manners, and beneath the silks and the satins is the long-held Australian suspicion of difference and sophistication imported from other cultures.

Much-admired Australian director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy) has made this film as a homage to his long-time friend, the expat Madeleine St John, whom he first met in 1960 when he joined the Sydney University Players.

St John’s novel The Women in Black, the only one of her four books set in Australia, was published in 1993. Beresford made contact with the author in London, where she lived from the late 1960s, with a view to making it into a film, but faced a number of funding setbacks.

Unfortunately, St John, who died in 2006, didn’t live to see it made, but we now have the pleasure of watching this warm and droll portrait of our nation in a period of transition from the mundane mono to the interesting multicultural nation it has become.

For those of us who remember the 1950s as well as for those who were not yet born then, this window into Australia’s past reminds us of where we were and what we were becoming.

Ladies in Black centres around the saleswomen who dressed only in black in order to sell expensive frocks and exclusive gowns to Australian women who deeply desired to look, above all else, sophisticated.

The script written by Beresford and Sue Milliken adheres pretty closely to St John’s novel and opens on a steamy Sydney November day. Fay (Rachael Taylor), a lonely girl with a chequered past who dreams of meeting a man who wants something other than sleaze, and Mrs Williams (Alison McGirr), who wishes her husband actually showed an interest in sex and romance, are complaining about their hard taskmistress Miss Cartwright (Noni Hazlehurst).

The main character is Lesley (Angourie Rice), who prefers to be called Lisa, and it is hard to believe is not a poorly disguised St John. Lisa is a clever, bookish teenager who is waiting to get her university scores, hopes to become a poet or an actress and is working at Goodes to save some money.

Her parents, the true-blue Aussie mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson), are not sure about their daughter’s new “refo” friends. When the glamorous Magda (Julia Ormond), a Slovenian who dreams of teaching Australian women the delights of Parisian haute couture in suburban Sydney, takes an interest in Lisa, her life changes forever.

So, of course, does Australia.

The dialogue is sharp and witty. The sets and costume design are authentic and impressive, and all of the actors are perfectly cast.

This film is a charmer. But even more importantly for those who think it’s just about women and dresses, it is a wonderful example of how and why the personal is always political.

As Miss Cartwright tells Lisa: “A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation.”

Dr Susan Mitchell is a writer, broadcaster, and book and film critic.

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