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MOVIE REVIEW : Sure-Footed ‘Strictly Ballroom’ Makes All the Right Moves

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Strictly Ballroom” is close to irresistible. Shamelessly derivative but told with unflagging energy and style, it is so awash in good spirits that audiences hungry for pure entertainment will be nibbling on it for some time to come.

Sly and sure-footed, “Ballroom” was shot in Australia, made its reputation at Cannes and has already played successfully from Japan to Iceland. Its heart, though, belongs to the golden age of Hollywood, to those simple days when on-screen wishes always came true and lovers never stayed apart for more than a few reels.

A wised-up homage to the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, “Ballroom” (at the Edwards Lido, Newport Beach) manages to both update and honor the conventions of the genre. Viewers can both wink knowingly at how old-fashioned these traditions have become as well as feel happy at the respect they’re treated with.

This combination of spoof and seriousness extends to the film’s exotic setting, the world of competitive ballroom dancing. Though just about unknown in this country, it has adherents on several continents and is quite popular in Australia, where director Baz Luhrmann (who also came up with the story and co-wrote the script with Andrew Bovell) made its acquaintance as a young boy.

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Competitive ballroom dancing is like an over-the-top version of Olympic ice skating, but without the free style segment. Though the costumes the teams wear are dazzling enough to make Mr. Blackwell blanch (Angus Strathie’s exuberant designs exhausted Australia’s entire supply of Austrian diamantes), the routines themselves are the picture of rigidity. Points are given for how well you follow the rules, not how much originality you bring, a situation that dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) finds increasingly wearing.

Scott is not just any dancer, he was primed, as the mock documentary that starts “Strictly Ballroom” somberly informs the camera, to win the acme of dancing competitions, the mighty Pan Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Championships. And then came that fateful samba.

As explained by Scott’s regretful coach, Les Kendall (Peter Whitford), Scott and his bleached blond partner Liz Holt (Gia Carides) found themselves boxed into a corner by another couple. To escape, Scott daringly attempted “those flashy crowd-pleasing steps” he’d resorted to before. “He forced me into it,” a horrified Liz explains, and then all heck broke out.

For in the tight little world of “Strictly Ballroom,” doing things your own way is the road to career suicide. Not only are Les and Liz furious with him, so is his dauntingly cheerful mother, Shirley (Pat Thomson), and the oily impresario of the ballroom world, Barry Fife (Bill Hunter).

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Scott, a rebel with a cause, couldn’t care less. No matter that he loses Liz as a partner with the Pan Pacifics, yes, only weeks away; no matter that everybody at the local dance studio thinks he’s making the mistake of his life; he is sick--sick, do you hear?--of dancing somebody else’s steps.

As it turns out, not quite everybody is terminally furious at Scott. His lost soul father, Doug (Barry Otto), is too out of touch to express any kind of opinion. And then there is Fran (Tara Morice).

To call this uncertain young woman an ugly duckling would be far too kind. Wearing unflattering glasses and an oversized T-shirt under bad-hair-day hair, so gawky she practically walks into walls and so new at ballroom dancing she still has another girl for a partner, Fran, with the temerity of a frog approaching a prince, tells Scott she believes in his steps and wants to help him dance them.

It is the great pleasure of the PG-rated “Strictly Ballroom” that it turns its absolutely predictability into a virtue almost as an act of will. Luhrmann has worked on multiple variations of this story for nearly a decade (starting with a student one that was put on for a budget of $50) and there can be no doubt that he has finally got it right.

Luhrmann and his team, including design collaborators Catherine Martin and Bill Marron, have told this version with visual panache as well as a distinctly modern pace and sensibility, understanding perfectly the necessity of camping up the comedy while leaving the romance charmingly alone.

Because it is kidding on the square, because its parody both of old movie forms and ballroom society is done from the inside and with love, “Strictly Ballroom” offers a surprisingly wide variety of satisfactions.

Between laughing at the stuffed shirts who run the show, gasping at the plot’s crises and catastrophes, rooting for Scott and Fran to beat the odds and show everyone a thing or two, not to mention being diverted by some nifty dancing, audiences will not believe their good fortune. The movie musical may not have been dead after all, just resting up until this lot came around.

‘Strictly Ballroom’

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Paul Mercurio: Scott Hastings

Tara Morice: Fran

Bill Hunter: Barry Fife

Pat Thomson: Shirley Hastings

M&A; Film Corp. production, released by Miramax Films. Director Baz Luhrmann. Producer Tristram Miall. Executive producer Antoinette Albert. Screenplay Baz Luhrmann and Andrew Bovell. Cinematographer Steve Mason. Editor Jill Bilcock. Ballroom Costume Designer Angus Strathie. Music David Hirschfelder. Production design Catherine Martin. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.


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