Movie Review: “Strictly Ballroom”

“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

strictly ballroom“Strictly Ballroom” is a 1992 film by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.  It begins at the conclusion of a local dance competition in which young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) effectively dances himself out of contention by trying out his own new dance moves, a pathway to certain defeat in the hidebound world of ballroom dance.  The competition lost, his partner Liz (Liz Holt) refuses to continue to dance with him and takes up with veteran Ken Railings (John Hannan) instead, leaving Scott without a partner for the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship.

The characters in these early scenes have a frightening, cartoonish aspect.  The men all have florid, sweaty faces and bad toupees, and the women wear their hair in impossible spikes.  Into this surreal arena enters the simple, unadorned Fran, winningly acted by Tara Morice, who reminded me of both Andie McDowell and Nia Vardalos.  Fran is a novice dancer and a textbook ugly duckling, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a space between her front teeth.  She tells a dubious Scott, “I want to dance with you, your way”, and persuades him to give her an hour to show what she can do.

That first hour together is magical.  Fran has far more talent and aptitude than Scott anticipated, and she brings out a sensitive, caring side in him that we hadn’t seen before.  They dance beautifully together, yet Scott insists that the tryouts being conducted by his mother (Pat Thompson) to find a new partner for him will go forward as planned.

“Strictly Ballroom” tells the story of how these two are forced to confront his dysfunctional family, as well as the seamy underbelly of competitive dance, and how they grow both as individuals and as a couple in the process.  While the basic storyline is unassuming, the costuming is a feast for the eye, and the soundtrack is delightful from beginning to end, and includes “Time After Time”, “Love is in the Air”, and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as sung by the inimitable Doris Day.

The sum total of all these parts is that rarest, most elusive of all cinematic achievements: romance.  Not since Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” have I seen a more romantic movie, and I think it is significant that both of them were made outside the U.S., far removed from Hollywood’s pernicious influence.

I recommend “Strictly Ballroom” for everyone, whether you’re looking for a movie for your family, a date with your main squeeze, or a night out with friends.  Even if you feel doubtful going in, you’ll feel happy on your way out.

Derrick Robinson