Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
Dance is a language in Baz Luhrmann’s hilarious, heartfelt comedy “Strictly Ballroom” — a means for two graceful people to communicate, telling a story without words. Just watch Scott (Paul Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice) at their clandestine dance rehearsals; a silent conversation between two bodies that slowly gets smoother and easier, like their burgeoning friendship. Or how Fran’s father (flamenco master Antonio Vargas) teaches some paso doble moves to Scott, demonstrating how a reaching arm can seem endless. Or how a family conversation/quarrel is heightened — irresistibly — by taking place during a tango lesson, with emphatic gestures and twirls serving as punctuation. Or how, by the end, everyone dances together to “Love Is In the Air,” and it’s as if every trouble they (or we) might have has floated away, leaving nothing behind but joy. Everyone and everything dances in this movie, right down to the fluttering sequins on the Coca-Cola sign on the dance studio’s rooftop.
But it’s easy to forget that “Strictly Ballroom,” an arthouse hit in early 1993, is at its Valentine-red heart a dance movie. Thinking back on it before rewatching, what I remembered was a quirky romantic comedy, filmed in Lurhmann’s now-familiar over-the-top sort of way. Scott, whose parents run a ballroom dance studio in their Sydney suburb, is a rising star in the Australian ballroom circuit — except that he pushes against the federation’s strict rules prohibiting creative dance steps, and loses his longtime partner Liz (Gia Carides) in the process. Enter Fran, an awkward, unassuming beginner who nonetheless knows what she wants: to dance with Scott in the Pan Pacific Championships. They practice in secret, while Scott’s mother, Shirley, schemes to partner him with the far more experienced (and excellently named) Tina Sparkle, and everything leads up to The Big Competition, where all plays out pretty much exactly how you might guess.
Watch, though, how Luhrmann, in his feature debut (the movie is based on a 1985 play he wrote while a student at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, with fellow student Craig Pearce), takes those expectations and plays with them. Yes, the once-plain Fran blossoms in the course of the film, but it’s dance as much as love that has transformed her. Of the partnership, she’s the more focused one, wisely telling Scott early on that he would be a great dancer “if you kept it simpler and dance from the heart.” Love takes a back seat to dance here; love, in fact, is dance. We never hear Scott and Fran saying they are falling in love, we just watch it happen as they whirl together in the dimly lit studio.
Much of the fun of “Strictly Ballroom” is its intense theatricality: It begins on a red curtain rising (a trademark of Luhrmann’s also used in “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge”) and ends with it dropping. In between, people behave in ways perhaps more suited to a stage: Liz, hilariously, rarely seems to enter a room without a banshee-shriek meltdown; Shirley (Pat Thomson) seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous collapse; the men who run the ballroom federation snarl like villains in toothy close-up. (Back in the 1990s I would have said that the fashions, particularly the ballroom competition outfits, were insanely over-the-top; now, post-“Dancing with the Stars,” they strike me as having a documentarylike accuracy. Liz’s weird little vertical pouf of bangs, like a blond windshield above her forehead, still delights me.)
Look beyond that silliness, though, and you’ll see some beautiful things: Scott’s quiet father, joyfully dancing alone in the studio with only his memories as a partner; Scott and Fran rehearsing on that rooftop, whirling around a clothesline in the magic evening light; the way that Scott, racing after Liz early on, effortlessly jumps and slides over a table to get to her, because he can. Luhrmann both mocks this world and celebrates it; he understands how the opening notes of “The Blue Danube,” before a competition waltz, seem to glow like a sunrise, and how a dance is transformed when two partners suddenly look into each other’s eyes.
If you saw “Strictly Ballroom” in a theater years ago — I think it had a long run at the Egyptian, way back when — you saw this movie the way it was meant to be seen: in a crowd that felt like the final crowded-dance-floor scene of the film, where the joy seemed to spill from the screen onto all of us. In my (highly untrustworthy) memory, we all waltzed out of the theater, feeling warm and happily dazzled and wanting to take ballroom dance lessons immediately. (I did, years later, learn a bit of tango; highly recommended, both for dance and drama purposes.) During this dark winter, we could all use a burst of joy; twirling with this irresistible movie just might bring that to you.