Friday, 13 February 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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It is Valentine's Day in the merry old land of Oz, and despite not having reason to celebrate, being both single and rather cynical, I am using it as an excuse to look at one of the best Australian films with a sweet romance at the centre: Strictly Ballroom by Baz Luhrmann. 

I have history with this film (in a good way). In Year 10 for one of our English assessment tasks (a subject I love with every fibre of my being) we had to write a film review. Rather than getting us to watch a film on our own, them do it from home, the whole year spent half a day watching the film, then 45 minutes writing the review. Why Strictly Ballroom? Well, if you are Australian you have to encounter a certain amount of Australian content in the curriculum at school. It was a girl's school, so maybe they thought we would enjoy the camp and dancing (I certainly did). In this particular exam, I topped the year, getting 20/20 and had the honour of having my review read out. However, I was sick the day that happened, and had to experience my teenage bashfulness post-fact.

I did look through my old school work, but alas, could not find the test; it must have been thrown out in a fit of school-work purging. But I do remember using the word 'bombastic' (one of my favourite words) and referred to the fast-paced performances of Pat Thomson as mother Shirley and the late, great Bill Hunter as Barry Fife. We were not asked for five-star ratings, but I do believe I said I enjoyed it, and I probably would have given it five stars: it is a classic, and a very Australian one at that.

A confession, though really it is something that I have no shame about: I love a good dance scene, though poorly filmed ones are painful (show me some feet; keep the camera steady!). In my defence, I have been dancing (non-professional) for twenty years, trying a variety of styles. I have not done ballroom, but still love the dancing in this film. Because of his theatrical background Luhrmann understands how to film and frame a dance sequence: plenty of long shots, editing that keeps the continuity of the movement going, and the sequences actually contribute to the story.

The story has several plots, all of which are leading to the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix: Scott wants to do his own steps, Fran needs to emerge butterfly-like from underneath her glasses, Scott's Dad need to undergo a similar transformation, and Barry wants to stop Scott from doing his own thing. History is revisited, prejudices are broken, love blossoms, and all done as everyone wears sequins, ruffles and fluoro colours.

The central relationship between Scott and Fran is fuelled by their mutual love of dance. Scott is incredibly talented, while Fran is a beginner in the class, though clearly knows more about dance than she lets on. The best example of this is the 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps' sequence; despite being observed by all and sundry, there is a wonderful intimacy to the scene. Scott, rather than focusing on the dancing, is really enjoying being so close to Fran, who is relaxing into the movement, and only loses it when she notices Scott's ex-dance partner. 

The secondary characters are all played with great extravagance and, as my sixteen-year-old self noted, bombast by the cast. The two young children are very cute, acting as a Greek chorus to the activities of the adults. The humour is very Australian: laughing at kitsch whilst also enjoying it (much like our love of ABBA). The costumes add to the humour, they are both wonderful and tacky, the highlight naturally being Fran's pasadoble dress.

If you need an injection of fabulousness into your life, watching this in a triple billing with Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

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