The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Review
Sydney. Drag performer Tick (Hugo Weaving), stage name Mitzi, receives an invitation to take his act to a holiday resort run by his ex-wife, far away in Alice Spring. Tick calls up his friends Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a transwoman whose lover has just died, and Adam aka Felicia (Guy Pearce) and they head off in a tour bus which Adam immediately names Priscilla...
Sometimes the film industry decides that what audiences want is not one but at least two films on similar premises at more or less the same time. Two volcano movies? Bring it on. And twenty-five years ago - we’re all getting old - what we really wanted was two comedies featuring drag queens (and a transwoman). The American film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar (with Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo) has over the years slipped into the back catalogue, though it’s due a rerelease in its own right. Meanwhile, its antipodean sister, writer/director Stephan Elliott’s second feature The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, still feels fresh as its reaches its quarter-century.
Plotwise, Priscilla is a road movie, across hot desert outback roads, with the encounters with the people they meet along the way driving the film. Visually it’s a riot with Brian J. Breheny’s camerawork sometimes scorching the eyes, aided and abetted by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel’s Oscar-winning costumes. The campness is played to the hilt, extending to the end titles, which tell us the film was made in Dragarama and which include credits for the likes of “Best Naughty Boy”.
Yet, darker notes are there from the start. The homo- and transphobia that the three encounter on their journey is not ignored. Tick struggles with his relationship with his separated wife and wonders what his son will think of his profession. And if the entire story begins in grief, with Bernadette in mourning, it ends with hope, and a connection made with Bob (Bill Hunter), a longtime fan of her act. You knew you were in safe hands when the late Bill Hunter turned up in an Australian film, and the chemistry between him and Terence Stamp is genuine and touching. It’s hard to imagine John Cleese as Bernadette, but he was one actor considered for the role. Nowadays, they might want to cast actual trans and gay actors in the lead roles, but the three leads all do a fine job. As for Hunter, he was making Muriel’s Wedding (another film with a notable performance of an Abba song) at the same time, which needed a different hair- and beard-styling and his commuting between two different parts of the country.
For what could have been a superficial camp/bitchfest, Priscilla has a lot of heart as well. It’s a little ragged in places, and a tad overlong, but as songs tor acceptance which play to mainstream audiences go, it works very well. Stephan Elliott has continued to make films, most recently the undervalued Swinging Safari (also known as Flammable Children) last year. But Priscilla is the one of his films that has lasted the best, and it’s back in cinemas for its silver anniversary.