by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
Scratch the extravagantly stylized surface of any of the films in Baz Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain” trilogy, and you will find a surprisingly simple and sincere love story lurking underneath. The first and best of the bunch, Strictly Ballroom, is a thickly-veiled variation on the Tale of the Frog Prince, set in the bejeweled and bedazzling world of competitive ballroom dancing. All at once madcap and moving, the film follows Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a ballroom wunderkind, whose struggle to step up his personal style within the rigid confines of his craft succeeds only in costing him his admirers and supporters, while alienating his longtime dance partner. Reluctantly pairing with a frumpy first-year dancer, Fran (Tara Morice), determined to mold her to his own specifications, he discovers that she might have a thing or two to teach him. You can see where it’s going a mile away, but (as with all retellings of classic stories) Strictly Ballroom’s genius is in how it gets there, its whiplash style and whip-smart wit constantly tweaking its inherent sentimentalism. Luhrmann’s ornate directorial flourishes skillfully strut the line between art and artifice, character and caricature, truth and travesty, passion and playfulness with astonishing aplomb, his visual style a perfect parallel to the film’s narrative and thematic arcs. A film that manages to have its cake and eat it too, Strictly Ballroom unrepentantly revels in its exaggerated glamor and grotesquery, while simultaneously stripping away the superficial to reveal the pure and powerful beauty of the beating heart beneath.