THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT *** 1/4 Written & directed By Stephan Elliott. Music, Guy Gross. Photography, Brian J. Brenehy. Editing, Sue Blainey. Costumes, Lizzy Gardiner, Tim Chappel. Production design, Owen Paterson. Art direction, Colin Gibson. Cast: Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Bill Hunter, Sarah Chadwick, Mark Holmes, Julia Cortez, Ken Radley, Alan Dargin, Rebel Russell. A Grammercy release. 102 min. Rated R (language).
Except for rabid, card-carrying homophobes, this Australian road-movie-with-a-difference is a charmer.
Priscilla has no sex. That's the name given to an old school bus that three drag queens purchase in Sydney and refurbish according to their own, amusing standards, in order to make the long trek to Alice Springs where a gig awaits them.
The three are : aging transsexual Bernadette (Terence Stamp), youngish occasional bisexual Tick or Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and gay-all-the way Adam or Felicia (Guy Pearce), the youngest.
Alice Springs, the town at the center of the continent, is half the country away and reachable through often bad desert roads. The movie has no big plot as such, but is all about a trip that has its share of adventures, without, however, being loaded down by them. And even when nothing major happens, we watch with fondness the three characters as they co-exist in and out of the bus, drink (like all good Aussies), sing, dance, argue or bicker.
The trio's specialty is to appear on-stage dressed in the most outrageous, garish, feathery female outfits, undulate and sort of dance while lip-synching to 1970s disco songs, from ABBA to whatever comes close to Z. They do their lavish karaoke excellently, and the musical selections are a constant treat.
Bernadette is the wisest and quietest of the three, and most serious --she hardly ever cracks a smile. Mitzi is a bit mercurial, sometimes solemn, sometimes buoyant. Felicia, the wildest of the bunch, is full of animal spirits, a prankster who gets often on the others' nerves. But still, there is essential harmony among those divergent types.
The three flaunt their weird appearances and get-ups all of the time, whether on the road or in small, stopover towns. In the middle of nowhere they encounter a party of aborigines having a party, and give a free, much appreciated performance. At a stop where macho men abound, they stupefy them, then get their respect after drinking down a masculine, insulting woman.
They do get a coarse graffito on Priscilla -- which Felicia has painted a blinding lavender --but that is only one of two cases of discrimination. The second is when Felicia, tauntingly dressed, runs into a group of drunken barbecuers and gets rescued by Bernadette's force of arms (biceps, that is).
When Priscilla breaks down (still in the middle of nowhere) , older mechanic Bob (Bill Hunter) saves the day. Bob has a young, hard-drinking and nagging mail-order bride. Her origins I cannot guess : she looks like one of those beautiful Tahitians from "Mutiny on the Bounty," hardly speaks English, and likes to do strip-teases topped by a most peculiar act.
When she leaves Bob, he gets in the bus to keep one eye on the defective gas tank and the other, so to speak, on Bernadette. There' s romance in the air, and at Alice Springs, after a nice surprise and after the girls are a hit, comes a happy ending.
The actors are perfect in their very difficult roles. Remarkably, their characters, with all the flamboyance and in spite of misadventures, keep admirably cool, show quiet tenacity and retain their sense of humor, so that no matter what the circumstances, there is never panic or hysteria. In a peculiar way, this steadiness blends in well with the beautiful, barren landscapes which often take on a surreal look.
In the 1960s, Terence Stamp rose to fame in "Billy Budd" as the young, sweet, naive sailor/victim, and reaffirmed his status in "The Collector," as the deranged butterfly collector who also captures Samantha Eggar. A celebrity and an icon, Stamp had more major roles in movies by major directors like Fellini, Schlesinger or Pasolini. Then he exiled himself to India, made occasional appearances in European films, reappearing more visibly from 1978 on in two "Superman" movies, "The Hit," "The Company of Wolves" and "Wall Street." But it is in "Priscilla" that he makes his real comeback.
Copyright Edwin Jahiel & the News-Gazette