This bright, breezy and immensely likable musical comedy, a remarkably confident film debut for co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann, looks set to waltz away with a sizable box office return when it opens Down Under. Internationally, this modestly budgeted charmer should also make its mark, with festival slots definitely indicated.
A behind-the-scenes look at a contest for ballroom dancers, pic unfolds the classic tale of a young dance star who wants to break the rules, and the opposition he faces from the establishment. Within the confines of this tried-and-true formula, Luhrmann has concocted a feel-good entertainment, which is lively, original (in an old-fashioned sort of way) and charming.
A couple of talented newcomers play the leading roles. Paul Mercurio (son of vet character actor Gus Mercurio) is a real find, a handsome leading man who, in addition, is obviously a top-flight dancer. Opposite him, Tara Morice shines as a plain Jane who turns from ugly duckling to swan when she’s on the dance floor.
Scott (Mercurio) has been preparing for the Australian ballroom dance championships since he was 6. His shrewish mother, Shirley (Pat Thomson), teaches dance at Kendall’s Dance Academy; Les Kendall himself (Peter Whitford) is her ex-dance partner.
Meanwhile, Scott’s henpecked father, Doug (a touching Barry Otto), stays home and sometimes, when no one’s looking, tries out a few dance steps himself.
Scott, partnered with the lovely but waspish Liz (Gia Carides) blows the semifinals when he breaks federation rules by improvising on the floor. Liz segues to a new partner (John Hannan, a standout) and Scott gets a dressing down from the federation prez (a suitably pompous Bill Hunter).
Enter Fran (Morice), a shy Spanish girl with bad skin and glasses. Only a beginner, she shares Scott’s ideas about trying new steps and manages to persuade him to take her on as his new partner. With help from her father and grandmother, they work on a flamenco routine they know will be anathema to the federation honchos, but, this being a wish-fulfillment pic, everything turns out fine at fadeout.
Except for the very cynical, audiences are likely to respond to the positive values and appealing love story, and also to the rich vein of humor Luhrmann uncovers in the refined world of formal dancing.
The unraveling of the plot could have been handled with a lighter touch in the closing reel, and gay stereotyping isn’t entirely avoided, but otherwise, “Strictly Ballroom” is strictly entertainment and a credit to all concerned.