Review: ‘Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst’

A feisty faker is held up as a feminist idol, but her bloody death and exact source of her appeal remain a mystery, in the cluttered Oz docu "Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst." Sundance outing may lead to additional fest slots, but the film's parochial relevance makes prospects iffy beyond home turf.

A feisty faker is held up as a feminist idol, but her bloody death and exact source of her appeal remain a mystery, in the cluttered Oz docu “Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst.” Vet feature director and frequent documaker Gillian Armstrong sutures talking heads, Monty Pythonesque animation and re-enactments to explore the life of a Down Under country girl whose identities included a singing flapper and English socialite before eventually finding local fame as a wallpaper magnate. Sundance outing may lead to additional fest slots, but the film’s parochial relevance makes prospects iffy beyond home turf.

Docu begins with thesp Judi Farr in a red wig and redder dress re-creating the gaudy impact Broadhurst made at a formal Black and White ball. After a rapid parade of talking heads of old friends and interior-design colleagues singing the real Broadhurst’s praises, Farr’s voiceover returns, reflecting on the day of her murder in Sydney, 1977, aged 78.

Pic eschews gory details, but implies Broadhurst’s end was shockingly violent. For the Sydney social set she left behind, the shocks kept on coming as the subject’s self-constructed myths were posthumously laid bare.

Unearthing Broadhurst’s humble origins as a farmer’s daughter in rural Queensland, docu reveals through excerpts from letters her desire for a more exciting life. That dream was fulfilled, beginning with a stint as a cabaret dancer in ’20s Shanghai.

Archive footage and inventive dramatizations give the film an energy the numerous static interviews can’t, though the over-used, Terry Gilliam-like animation with old family photos does jangle the nerves. Intention may have been to replicate Broadhurst’s zeal, but the effect is trivializing and detracts from Armstrong’s other, smarter directorial choices.

Though the film reflects on Broadhurst’s romances, travels and painting career, it ultimately fails to convince the uninitiated of her brilliance or charm. Nevertheless, it’s evident she’s still widely loved by the enthusiastic friends and colleagues who survive her, despite the fact the pic unintentionally suggests a selfish woman who merrily bewitched all those who thought they knew her. Only the facial tics of her much-neglected son, Robert Lloyd-Lewis, mar the generally hagiographic tone.

Most interesting is a re-enactment of Broadhurst’s last moments, followed by interviewees puzzling over the septuagenarian’s unsolved murder at her wallpaper factory. Tech credits are strong, and obvious financial constraints are juggled with aplomb.

Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst

Australia

Production

A Film Australia presentation of a Film Australia, Becker Entertainment production, in association with the New South Wales Film & Television Office, SBS Independent. (International sales: Film Australia, Sydney.) Produced by Sue Clothier, Charles Hannah. Executive producer, Mark Hamlyn. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Written by Katherine Thomson.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, DV), John Radel; editor, Nicholas Beauman; music, Paul Grabowsky; production designer, Melinda Doring; costume designer, Tess Schofield; animators, Nina Gibbs, Simon Rippingale; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Finlay; associate producer, Nicola Lawrence. Reviewed at Roxy Theater, Lindfield, Sydney, Jan. 16, 2006. (In Sundance Film Festival -- World Cinema, competing.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Judi Farr, Felicity Price, Hanna Garbo, Robert Lloyd-Lewis, Phyllis Nicholson, Marno Parsons, Maggie Tabberer, Akira Isogawa.
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