Review – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [1994]

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce
Director: Stephan Elliott
Screenwriter: Stephan Elliott

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is gay, in both definitions of the word, and that’s precisely what makes its charm almost irresistible. It’s a fun romp through the desert of Australia. It has a kinetic energy that almost never lets up, and it has characters that are as unpredictable and eccentric as its costumes (for which it won an Oscar). One thing that makes it as enjoyable as it is are the three leads, all typically “macho” men, or at least actors who play roles associated with more masculine character traits: Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce. The fact that they play three musical drag queens is something that starts out seeming like a gimmick, and as the film progresses, becoming a more and more pleasing choice.

The film is essentially a road trip movie. Tick (Mitzi being his drag name, played by Hugo Weaving) gets a call from his ex-wife, who works at a casino in a far off part of the country, and wants to hire him to do drag show. He agrees, and brings along with him Adam (also known as Felicia, played by Guy Pearce), and Bernadette, a post-op transgender woman (Terence Stamp). They buy a bus, paint it pink, and christen it “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and take off. What happens on their journey across the country is better left for an audience to find fully out, but it’s full of different situations that range from outright hilarity, to blatant what the fuck moments, to scenes with an emotional weight. Scenes like one out in the desert where the “girls” perform a small show for some men they meet on a road less taken, or a scene involving ping pong balls that’s completely unforgettable (and not for anyone under the age of 18… though that didn’t stop me), and who could forget the giant shoe adorning the bus?

The movie isn’t perfect by any means. At times it feels slightly forced. Other times the more serious moments detract from the comedic moments and it feels uneven. The basic road trip story is a slightly tired one, and the film doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, even if it does make the ride fun. That said, the good definitely outweighs the bad. The songs are extremely catchy (who doesn’t want to sing along to Gloria Gaynor and ABBA? Come on! Admit it, you do!), the characters are fun, and the costumes are so over the top I couldn’t help but smile and laugh at them. Writer/Director Stephan Elliott obviously understands the appeal of the musical drag shows men like these do. With each musical number, he increases the stakes, and by that I mean the eccentricity and electricity, until the finale, which really is a wonderful number, and a great way to end the movie. And he doesn’t load them on too strongly. There aren’t too many of them, so that when they do come, they’re very nice to watch.

For all its imperfections, I would still recommend the movie, especially if you’re a fan of any of the lead actors, or musicals. Really, it’s a ballsy movie. Australia is in many ways the cultural and societal counterpart to the United States in its approach to gay rights, as far as I’m aware, so the fact that the movie takes place in Australia, and deals with the subject that it does so unashamedly is really worth applauding. It’s not a completely stand out movie, and most of its moments end up being kind of forgettable. But for the moments that stick with you, it’s well worth it.

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