MGM // 1994 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 4th, 2011
Finally, a comedy that will change the way you think, the way you feel, and most importantly...the way you dress.
Although dressing in drag has a long tradition on the dramatic stage, it really only became a viable subculture the way we think of it in the twentieth century. Despite the involvement of drag queens in gay pride related events (as well as the famous Stonewall Riots), it might have remained an underground phenomenon. Instead, drag queens have been the subject of a number of movies that have seen them move from the fringes of gay society to something closer to mainstream acceptance. One of the milestones on that road was the release of the Australian The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an indie production that garnered a serious amount of international attention (including an Oscar) and a cult following thanks to a combination of amazing acting (including veteran Terrence Stamp) and a bloody-good story. After an excellent DVD release in 2007, Priscilla gets a hi-def paint job, and the results are excellent.
Tick (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix) is a drag performer who receives an offer from his estranged wife to perform at her casino. The problem is that Tick can't do it alone, and the casino is in the middle of the Outback. He enlists the aid of Bernadette (Terrence Stamp, The Hit) and Felicia (Guy Pearce, Memento) as traveling companions and fellow showgirls. The trio set off in a giant bus, dubbed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and have many adventures along the way.
I had seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert before this Blu-ray arrived, but a few things struck me about the film on a repeat viewing:
* This is not a drag movie. No, seriously. Actual drag performances take up very little of the film's running time, and the trio's journey to their performances is much more the focus of the film. Saying Priscilla is about drag is like saying Withnail and I is about actors -- sure that's their occupation, but they're so much more than that. Similarly, to reduce Priscilla to "that movie where Agent Smith dresses like a woman" is to diminish the appeal of this film. I won't deny there's drag in the film, or that the film could be empowering to many people because of that, but it's also a story about friendship, loyalty, parenting, and the appeal of the open road. People might come to Priscilla for the drag, but they stay for the beautiful human story at the film's center.
* The drag in this movie isn't very good. Maybe performance standards have evolved since 1994, or maybe Australians have a different idea of a good drag show, but I've got to say that the drag performances were the least interesting parts of this film. The few drag shows I've been to are exciting, lively affairs, with lots of attention paid to visual flair. Director Stephen Elliot shows a deft hand for most of the film, but when it's time for the girls to strut their stuff, the film falls flat. I've seen better choreography from amateurs, and although their costumes are genuinely beautiful, that's not enough to make a drag performance interesting, at least to this reviewer.
* It's not the actors' fault. No, these guys are amazing. I don't care if you think drag is the dumbest thing on earth, Terrence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce bring their considerable talent to bear on this film. Stamp was already a famous actor by 1994 (perhaps most noted in America as General Zod from the Superman franchise), but his role as Bernadette is unlike anything else in his catalog. It's a master class in acting as he brings an embattled dignity to his portrayal of a transsexual. Stamp makes the character a real person, even a real woman, without resorting to stereotypes or overplaying. In the opposite camp, Pearce goes straight over the top to play the camp in Felicia, balancing out Stamp's more subdued performance. Although his is the character most likely to appear in a charge of stereotyping, Pearce raises Felicia from simple catty queen to a rounded character, mostly through sparring with Bernadette. Hugo Weaving is caught in the middle, a confused character who is obviously invested in his drag lifestyle, but isn't sure what that might mean for his relationship with a son or wife. Their interactions make up the bulk of the film and are a treat to watch.
* This Blu-ray release of the film is quite nice. The AVC encoded transfer is solid, with wonderfully bright colors and strong detail (especially in the colors). There's a bit of print damage, but nothing too distracting, and no serious compression artifacts or other problems to mar the presentation. The DTS-HD soundtrack is equally impressive, showing its true colors during the musical numbers. The dialogue is clean and clear in the front channels and well-balanced with the atmospherics in the surround channels. Subtitles are provided for those who don't want to decipher Australian accents. Extras have been ported straight from the previous DVD. They start with an excellent commentary from Eliot, who discusses his actors, the story, and what it was like to shoot on location in the treacherous Outback. We get a bit of that info repeated in his on-camera interview, but with no real "making-of," the overlap isn't too bad. We also get a featurette that includes a number of on-set interviews with cast and crew. We also get four deleted scenes and a 10-minute gag reel in addition to the film's theatrical and teaser trailers.
* Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bit of a weird movie. As a road movie it doesn't have a typical three-act structure, and although the girls' goal is the casino, there's no real climax to the film. Obviously the film is going to turn off some viewers who can't stand drag, but those looking for a traditional, linear plot with a definite goal and conclusion might also find Priscilla a bit frustrating.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a fascinating tale filled with some of the best acting you're likely to find in a film. It's recommended to any fans of the actors involved (and you'll certainly never see The Lord of the Rings movies the same way again). Those who are already in love with Priscilla should consider upgrading for the improved audiovisual quality, but the lack of new extras makes it a toss-up.
Drag on, Priscilla -- not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes