Film Reviews

Queens of Australia

Drag queens in the Outback, laddies. Wearing Scarlett O'Hara outfits and showing a Carmen Miranda flair. Lip-synching to the Village People, ABBA and Gloria Gaynor. And driving around in a lavender tour bus christened "Priscilla." This is a road show never dreamed of by Crosby, Hope and Lamour.

But if you want to see an old-fashioned movie musical, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, believe it or not, is just the ticket. It has terrific characters, sensational costumes, distinctive music, genuine showstoppers, lots of wisecracks (along with a touch of rue), an excuse for a plot and a happily-ever-after ending. Innocent and gentle even when its "girls" face down the occasional intolerant crowd (most of which, however, are inquisitive, bemused, even accepting), Priscilla is the feel-good movie of the summer.

As quickly as possible, writer/director Stephan Elliott gets the show on the road. The plot, such as it is, concerns three drag queens who leave Sydney to travel across Australia toward a resort, where they're scheduled to put on a show. Their bus breaks down along the way, and adventures ensue. Among the queens is Felicia (Guy Pearce), who's so vixenish and bitchy that he walks into a rural mining town in full drag just to see what he can provoke. Felicia also likes to make rather indelicate asides, which are as witty as they are off-color. Then there's Mitzi, played by Hugo Weaving, star of the thought-provoking but little-seen Proof. Weaving is excellent here, relishing the production numbers -- even when breaking a heel or battling an unflattering spotlight -- and confronting a heterosexual past that resulted in his having a young son. Nervously taking the boy on an outing, Mitzi dresses stereotypically straight, even emphasizing his masculinity by spitting. The fact that the child, quite well-adjusted, would rather see his father's campy routines is a good indication of the film's soothing tone.

Priscilla's queen queen, Bernadette, is a drag veteran coached out of retirement. A wry, matronly transsexual who becomes understandably piqued when called by his given name, Ralph, Bernadette is played by Terence Stamp, still strikingly handsome some three decades after his Oscar-nominated role in Billy Budd. Stamp has aged well, and he's glamorous, ladylike and droll as a world-weary vamp who, refusing to smile, nevertheless enjoys his/her experiences immensely. "Oh, I did this years ago," he complains, but then puts himself through the numbers anyway. It's a sly, affectionate performance, and it's no wonder that Bob (Bill Hunter), an endearing mechanic with a mail-order bride who's more shocking than the drag queens could ever be, finds himself attracted to Bernadette.

Their budding romance blooms as fragrantly as the flowers in the queens' headdresses -- part of 38 spectacular costumes the trio changes in to and out of. Some boast spangles and feathers; others unfurl in all their glory when the queens stand at attention and ride Priscilla's roof. The queens laugh at themselves when they should, have lots of fun, stress flamboyant glitz over culture clashes and even get aborigines into the act. All in all, a nice ride.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Written and directed by Stephan Elliott. With Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce.

Rated R.
102 minutes.

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