The story of Priscilla, in which Bernadette and two drag artistes travel - in the bus that gives the film its name - from Sydney to Alice Springs for a cabaret engagement, exploits the co-existence in Australia of an extremely sophisticated gay culture in some cities and, more or less everywhere else, a redneck mentality (the native word is 'ocker') of world-beating homophobia. Once they're away from the city they love and hate, the three heroes can take nothing for granted.
The director (Stephan Elliott) and cinematographer (Brian Breheny) make much of the other-worldliness of the Australian outback. Any human figure in this landscape looks out of place, but Bernadette, Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce) bring with them an extra surrealism, particularly when they're rehearsing for their engagement. They look like souffles on the moon.
In the outback, dawn sashays up over the horizon like a drag queen in her own right, and the pinks and purples of this wilderness are no less camp than the trio passing through it. Sometimes, when he inserts eerie shots of animals and insects - a lizard at one point scuttling over an abandoned bottle of vodka - Elliott seems positively to be remaking Walkabout in high heels.
One of the strengths of the film is that it doesn't make any of the main characters immediately likeable. The tetchy campery of Mitzi and Felicia in particular soon becomes unbearable. Elliott's script, though, is sophisticated enough to show the transvestites and the transsexual using camp in different ways. For Mitzi and Felicia it is a matter of reflex, part of the way they negotiate their status minute by minute. For Bernadette it is a deadly but also a depleting weapon, not to be deployed except in a crisis. Camp in Bernadette's version is a high-risk strategy that can sometimes turn the world around, while for the others it is a sort of background radiation that they would notice only if it disappeared.
Several times in the course of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a character has a flashback to an earlier stage of his development. The explanatory flashback is such a ubiquitous convention that an audience's heart may sink when it turns out that Felicia, then a growing lad known as Adam, was invited by his uncle to play a special game in the bath, a game he must never ever tell anyone about. But the convention is used against itself after all, and nothing is explained by the flashbacks. However far back you go, sexuality and difference are already in place.
Surprisingly for a film about feminine behaviour as an option for men, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert includes a number of strong female characters, seen variously as competing with or eclipsing the men. When the heroes set off from Sydney, their departure coincides with the beginning of a one-woman coast-to-coast trek. The launch party for the drags, admittedly, is a lot livelier than the one for the dogged athlete dragging her little trolley of supplies behind her as she trots off across Australia.
On the road the three travellers come across women who try to fit in with the man's man's world of Australia, first a foul-mouthed drinker and then Cynthia (Julia Cortez), a mail-order bride whose extroversion and love of entertaining are frustrated by her husband. It's true that Cynthia is there at least partly to introduce the film's unlikely love interest, her grizzled husband Bob (Bill Hunter), but she does have an opportunity to upstage the visiting performers with her own stage show before she stumps out of the film towards her own freedom.
Finally, in Alice Springs, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), who runs the club where they will be putting on their show, is an almost insufferably positive role model: she shows that unconventional people can be as responsible as anyone else. In the 1990s even drag queens are called upon to re-evaluate their lives, and this part of the film, which focuses on Mitzi's problems of adjustment, can get a little preachy. But the stage show, when we finally see it, is really something. 'Strykermeyer', the film's Executive Drag Consultant, has earned his keep.
What stays in the mind from the film, though, is Terence Stamp's Bernadette. When actors known to be straight undertake sexually unconventional roles, they often start trying to limit the damage to their careers from the instant the contract is signed, and give careful, technical performances. But where William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman lugubriously flapped his arms all the way to Oscar (one of the weakest performances to be so rewarded), Stamp seems fearless in what he takes across the border into femininity, and what he leaves behind.
His voice has always been soft, not weak but oddly disembodied. When he was playing the spellbinder or the charismatic villain, the effect it made was one of authority, but here it registers as a voice from another place, with overtones of wistfulness and exhaustion.
Being paid to be expressive for the first time in his career, Terence Stamp obliges with a persuasive melancholy, but there is also plenty of humour in his performance. Having outdrunk the local champion at a small town bar, Bernadette gets to her feet with great dignity, then gives a toss of the head that is sheer slow-motion Miss Piggy. And in Alice Springs, waiting to go on stage and being presented with a good-luck bouquet by the devoted Bob, she doesn't bend down to smell it but instead, with a wan graciousness, wafts the perfume up to her nose with a fanning motion of the hand, a gesture admirably tender and ridiculous.
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