Just when you thought there would never be an alternative to Arnoldian style action films or badly-adapted screen versions of John Grisham novels comes something totally unique from Australia, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Written and directed by Stephen Elliot, “Priscilla” combines in a fantastical way two seemingly unlike things: drag queens and the Australian outback. Where we were used to seeing Crocodile Dundee, appears three men, er, two men who wear women’s clothing and answer to the names of Felicia (Guy Pearce) and Mitzi (Hugo Weaving), and one transsexual named Bernadette (Terence Stamp).
Mitzi convinces Bernadette to perform in a revue to help get her mind off the death of her lover. Bernadette agrees despite the fact that transportation to the show, located in some nondescript casino which lies over many miles of sand and little creepy desert lizards, is not part of the package. That leaves the girls with the dilemma of getting there within the limits of their budget. This problem is solved by the young and saucy Felicia with the requisition of a giant bus, christened Priscilla. “Priscilla” is transformed into a dressing room on wheels, complete with make-up mirrors, tanning bed, and enough room for piles of colorful ensembles.
Costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel deserve as much credit for their talent as the actors do. When performing in their musical numbers, Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette are decked out in clothes that make Liberace look like a Gap model. The song-and-dance numbers resurrect some wonderful music, particularly some memorable Abba hits. Beautiful shots by director of photography Brian J. Breheny make traveling in the outback look appetizing.
Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette depart on their journey amid fanfare, but tiffs between Bernadette and Felicia quickly surface. Their arguments supply many laughs, and so do the wisecracks delivered by Bernadette.
One of the film’s main ideas is the exploration of small town Australia, or in reality small town anywhere, being confronted by something totally foreign. In this case, it’s three drag queens that sing and dance. As expected, some reactions are typically homophobic, while others are pleasantly surprising. In one of the rural towns, the “girls” meet a mechanic named Bob (Bill Hunter) who befriends and accompanies them on the final part of their road trip.
The film opens with Mitzi singing a song with lyrics that capture some of the meaning of the movie, “I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to me.” And, by the end of the film, the girls finally find what they’re looking for, and so does the audience - a great film.
Despite its seemingly unconventional topic, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is worth the $7 because it is beautiful to look at and confirms that when you look back, it won’t be a question of whether you sported pants or skirts, but how you lived while wearing them.