'Strictly Ballroom' takes some wonderful turns

MOVIES

February 26, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Of course the wonderful thing about "Strictly Ballroom," opening today at the Senator Theatre, is that it's not strictly ballroom. It's strictly everything.

It's one of those wondrous fables that seems to bore in so intensely on such a small subject that you only notice upon reflection the scale of its ambition. At the time you hardly notice it, because you're having such a good time.

It might be seen as the vivid, comic dramatization of a truth uttered about academic life but applicable to any intensely factional human enterprise: The fights are so bitter because the stakes are so small.

The politics of the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Ballroom Dancing Rules Committee in Sydney, Australia, are as furiously desperate as in the upper reaches of the Kremlin in the early '20s, when Joe S. and Leon T. were trying to outmaneuver each other to take over the Politburo and the party apparatus. The forces -- well, you know the forces. They're in the old Kremlin or the new White House or this newspaper or at your family dinner table: the doctrinaire orthodoxians, who cling to power through enforcement of a code as inflexible as it is irrational, vs. the long-haired heterodoxians, the new creatives, the people who want to express themselves and go with the flow or the music. It may be moonwalking or crotch grabbing or it may be, as it is in this case, something as radical as dancing new steps.

The P-P GPBDRC has been ruled for years by an aimable despot named Barry Fife; it's a tight little world in which the inner party and its progeny are favored, no outsiders need apply, every body has either danced with or slept with every other body and the whole thing seems fated to keep ticky-ticking along nicely until the globe spills off into the sun. Unmonitored entirely by outside agencies, it has permuted into something exotic and illogical, yet something accepted as bedrock by its occupants. It is, in short, a subculture so far under the surface of reality that no reality seems to exist. Been down so long it looks like up to them.

But then the favored son, Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) commits the unpardonable sin: He dances his own steps. The seismic shudder may be felt from one side of the ballroom dancing world to the other.

Scott is youth, talent, romance, impetuousness, rebellion, integrity; naturally, he must be crushed. Baz Luhrmann's film giddily slips between modes, being at one time a mock-profound documentary that "covers" the power shifts, coups, plots and ploys of the P-P GPBDRC, complete to interviews with Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) and his oily minions.

At the same time it's a fluent, though slightly exaggerated, romance between Scott and his new partner Fran (an outsider), who enables him to feel the music, primarily by getting him outside of his tight and airless little world. Her message: There's a hell of a good universe next door. Let's go.

And it's also a love affair, or rather, a love-o-rama. Love is in the air, it's on the floor, it's stuck on the seat cushions and it's why the movie is such a toot. First there's Scott and Fran (Tara Morice), the prince and the ugly duckling who, as they dance, learn that each is more beautiful than the other could possibly have imagined. Then there's Barry Fife and power, a passionate coupling that drives the plot forward as Barry tries desperately to maintain his full nelson hold on P-P GPBDRC. Then there's the love between the camera and the dancers, and the way it finds grace at the heart of this tackiest of universes and loves to watch the human body express itself through glorious movement. And finally, there's the love between the director and his materials.

This last may be the most telling. Luhrmann has been escorting this project for years and years now. First it was a student workshop project, then a full-scale stage production and now, years later, an actual movie. And while a complete movie -- that is, imagined (and how!) cinematically from the concept out -- it retains considerable quantities of its on-stage charm, particularly the gaudy primary colors, vibrant and cheesy, that give it a true theatricality. Imagine "Cinderella" as co-directed by Fellini and Fred Astaire, with footnotes by Niccolo Machiavelli, in a country where everybody calls everybody else "mate," and you'll get what I mean.

"Strictly Ballroom"

Starring Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice.

Directed by Baz Luhrmann.

Released by Miramax.

Rated PG.

*** 1/2

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