3 stars (out of four)
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a red-booted, show-stopping drag queen named Lola in the new British film "Kinky Boots," and it's a sensational performance. Ejiofor, the Nigerian-British actor who made a big hit in Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," plays Lola--a 6- foot floozie chantoozie--as a big, warm, seductive homme/femme fatale. When he blasts out his stage routines, singing "I Want To Be Evil," "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'." or (a perfect choice) "Whatever Lola Wants," he's able to portray a man who's most comfortable in a woman's persona, without descending into camp.
Ejiofor's Lola, whose real name is Simon , is a muscular flirt with super-thick lashes and a taste for red stiletto-heel boots. The premise is that Lola's penchant for boots and talent for fashion may help save a staid old British shoe factory, Price & Sons in Northampton, from financial failure--after Lola rather melodramatically meets the shoe factory's new, naive young owner, Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton). The latter spots Lola one night being harassed by thugs on a Soho street and foolishly tries to play hero. (Lola doesn't need a protector, but Charlie does.)
In a way, what follows is a love story between Lola and Charlie, two men who are still, in many ways, boys at heart. But it's not a sexual love story. Charlie, with his shy good nature and his face reminiscent of young Tom Courtenay ("Billy Liar"), is torn between two women--his anti-Northampton snob girlfriend Nicola (Jemima Rooper) and a fetching, gamin-faced factory girl named Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts).
Lola, meanwhile, gets big-brotherish (or big-sisterish?) with Charlie, while spending much of the movie mocking the prejudices of a hefty, homophobic shoe factory worker named Don Burton (played by big Nick Frost of "Shaun of the Dead"), who is also the local arm-wrestling champion at a pub called "The Boot." (Guess who winds up arm-wrestling with the champ? )
Directed by Julian Jarrold and co-written by Tim Firth ("Calendar Girls"), the movie is quite enjoyable, effortlessly well-done on every level, even moving at times, but relatively light weight. Jarrold (who did "Crime and Punishment" and "Great Expectations" for British TV) tries to revive the spirit of the old post war Ealing Studios classics such as "The Lavender Hill Mob," "Passport to Pimlico" and "Tight Little Island." He doesn't, of course; "Kinky Boots" lacks the lighter-than-air whimsy of those great comedies.
As a movie, it belongs more with a recent popular group of comedy-dramas--"The Full Monty" "Brassed Off" and "Calendar Girls"--about England's post-Thatcher economic wreckage. These films amusingly chart how workers or families in this collapsing economy cope--sometimes competitively, sometimes in off-color ways (such as stripping, posing for nude calendars) or, in this case, producing what Nicola calls boots for hermaphrodites.
Nicola is witchy, but an overdose of niceness may be what's slightly off with "Kinky Boots" itself. Despite its torchy visual style and that great performance by Ejiofor--as well as a stirring job by Linda Bassett as old-line shoe worker Melanie and good work by everyone else--the movie never cuts too deep. By the end, when Lola links arms with Charlie and his girl, the tigerish, sexually ambiguous vamp almost seems like a member of the makeover team in a drag-queen version of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Not quite though. Ejiofor is too good, too hot. As far as this movie goes, whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.
Directed by Julian Jarrold; written by Geoff Deane, Tim Firth ; photographed by Eigil Bryld; edited by Emma E. Hickox; production designed by Alan Macdonald; music by Adrian Johnston; produced by Nicholas Barton, Suzanne Mackie, Peter Ettedgui. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving sexuality, and for language).
Charlie Price - Joel Edgerton
Lola/Simon - Chiwetel Ejiofor
Lauren - Sarah-Jane Potts
Nicola - Jemima Rooper
Don - Nick Frost
Melanie - Linda Bassett
Movie review: Kinky Boots'
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