Strictly Ballroom – 1992
Director – Baz Luhrmann
Starring – Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, and Bill Hunter
I hadn’t realized before sitting down and watching it, but seeing Strictly Ballroom pointed out just how I’d been missing Australia, not to mention Australian film. There is a certain quality of the acting, the tone and the intonation. The characters are at once relate-able and larger than life, and the initial cartoonish impression I had of Australian cinema turned out, I realized, to simply be a vehicle for a more universal set of truths. In an effort to be funny, and make for a more compelling read, I have had the tendency to make jokes at the expense of, and be rather hard on some of the films that I’ve seen. The caricatures of the people in those films seemed unrealistic or even laughable on a first viewing, but ultimately, once the stories were done and the reviews written, I continued to think about films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Muriel’s Wedding. Each stayed with me longer than I would have thought. I have come to rather like Muriel’s Wedding, despite feeling a little indifferent to it when I wrote the initial review. Like each of those other films, Strictly Ballroom, is completely an Australian film, and just as before, it’s got me thinking. Thinking about the film itself, and about going back to Australia. Hopefully soon!
My wife in particular was excited about this film, thanks in no small part to the fact that it centers around dance. Though, the film isn’t really what I would call a dance film in the same way that something like Singing In The Rain is a dance film, it is instead to dance as Rocky was to boxing, an important plot point, but not necessarily the focus.
The story centers around Scott, the promising dancer who yearns to break out of the rigid formula required by the Pan-Pacific Ballroom Dance competition, and dance his own movies, from the heart. Everyone from his partner, to the judges, to his family all try to warn him that he is being reckless with his chances of winning the competition and making something of himself. It’s only, Fran, the mousy, seemingly inexperienced dancer in his class that sees otherwise, and encourages him to break free from the rules, and from everyone else’s expectations.
Scott and Fran both are both good enough characters, played well by actors Paul Mercurio, and Tara Morice respectively, filling out the roles nicely with likable, engaging characters that the audience wants to root for, but it’s really the supporting characters that populate the world around them that make this movie such a joy. Take Fran’s parents for example…at first her father seems like an angry, possibly abusive guy trying to commandeer his daughter’s future, but it turns out that he is a passionate dancer who truly doesn’t want to see his little girl waste her time with someone who doesn’t treat her as she deserves. Her mother, likewise, is a rich breathing person who deeply loves her family. You can tell at once that each of them, outside of the reality that this film covers, has lived a full life, each with their own experiences and trials. This is a testament not only to the filmmakers, but to the actors as well.
Likewise, Scott’s parents harbor their own desires and regrets, as they strive and scrabble trying desperately to reach for past glories. Scott’s dance coach, Les, as well as his rival Doug, are both great fun to watch as they blunder through the narrative, successfully wresting my attention away from our two leads. Good as each of these secondary and tertiary characters might be, certainly the most watchable performance was turned in by Bill Hunter, as the detestable, corrupt, Ballroom Federation president, Barry Fife. Chewing each bit of scenery that he’s given, Fife is sooooooooooo much fun to watch, that I almost wish the film were about him.
At first watch, this film, as well as a lot of other films that come out from down under, seem a little simple, a little cartoonish, or even more than a little over the top, but each film that I have had the good fortune of seeing, is saying more than what is on the surface. Priscilla, as well as Muriel’s Wedding, have strong messages of acceptance, and Muriel in particular has more than a little to say about forgiveness (of yourself just as much as of anyone else.).
Similarly, Strictly Ballroom is more than what is evident on the surface. It preaches passion for what you love, and acceptance of others, not despite, but because of what they are. I really enjoyed this film, more even than watching it, I enjoyed thinking about it afterwards, which is really a sort of first for me. I am looking forward to giving this film another viewing to see if I can glean anything further from it. More than anything, though, this film makes me miss Australia. It brought back memories of traveling along the coast of New South Wales, from Kiama back to Sydney (although I’m not sure I could tell you why it made me think of that…), and for that I loved it!