Viking Night
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

By Bruce Hall

May 6, 2014

Agent Smith swears he was just going through a phase.

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When I was in college, I had a friend who turned out to be much more attractive in drag than NOT in drag. I wasn’t sure what to make of this until it was explained to me that there was a weekly burlesque show at a local pub, and a few of the more eccentric people I knew were into it. I still was not sure what to make of this, since my formative exposure to men dressing up as women was half Monty Python, half Tom Hanks on Bosom Buddies. I therefore knew of the practice only as a way to avoid hiring extra cast members or to save big money on rent at the expense of your dignity. Until a guy I knew walked past my dorm room in a hair net and lipstick, it never occurred to me that some people find the experience liberating. And everyone has something that needs to be liberated.

For example let’s say your name is Tick Belrose, and you’re an Australian drag queen played by Hugo Weaving. Your life is in a rut, and your semi well-paying but very taboo career is all you have. Then you get offered a gig, one that could change your life, only you don’t really know it yet. Your friend Bernadette (Terrence Stamp) has just lost her soul mate to a freak hairstyling accident and you could use some moral support on your journey, so you bring her along. And so the whole trip isn’t all long faces and sad eyes, you also invite fellow performer and sorta-kinda-friend Adam (Guy Pearce), a flamboyant loudmouth whose hobbies are (in order) singing, drinking, dancing, and making people so angry they want to punch kittens.

This is your cast.

They set off in Adam’s party bus (named “Priscilla”, by the way), which is fully carpeted and smartly retrofitted with a bar, wardrobe and full tanning bed. As they make their way across the Outback, the three of them get shitfaced, have catfights, and occasionally rock their show costumes for a night on the town. Sometimes this leads to good things, and sometimes it doesn’t. Three outrageously gay men in outrageously gay clothes driving an outrageously gay bus are going to go over better in some places than others. Australia has Red States too, and Priscilla rolls through all of them on her journey. The bus is besieged by intolerance from inside and out, relationships are tested, and bonds are formed.


There really isn’t anything groundbreaking here, unless you consider a comedy/drama about three queens in a lavender bus laughing, crying, and occasionally fleeing their way across one of the most inhospitable parts of the planet ”groundbreaking”. For me, the gender-bending aspect of Priscilla was kind of an entertaining side note. Like most decent stories, this one is simply about people dealing with their shit and if it's done artfully, that’s what makes the story interesting. Tick seems like a good guy, but something is eating away at him and his friends will eventually get dragged into it. Bernadette is lost and mournful, bored by her career and exhausted with life. Adam is just angry and confused, and should probably still be living with his mother. Strip away the high heels, mascara, big hair, shiny dresses, homoerotic innuendo and ping pong balls, and any of these characters could be just about anyone.

But what really gives it life is a sound script by also-director Stephan Elliott and a trio of damn fine leads. Stamp is (if you’ll pardon the parlance) positively divine, successfully projecting the quiet dignity of a woman in grief AND the kick-you-in-the-ballsness of South Australia’s pre-eminent bitch-queen. Pearce is hilarious and appalling, like a walking sociology experiment. This role is his Amadeus. He is to this movie what Kevin Costner was to Silverado. I would be totally happy to see a spinoff of just this character. I’m not sure I could live with myself after watching it, but I can’t shake the curiosity. I’m not saying this film will change your life or otherwise impact you in any way beyond the 103 minutes it takes to watch. But it’s a solid comedy/drama that’s enough fun to be worth watching more than once, and ever so slightly thought provoking enough for you to claim some moral high ground, too.

And if you want more, it’s also got Agent Smith from The Matrix wearing a dress made out of shoes and lip synching to ABBA. That's not to say there isn't some level of drama here, but it's of a juvenile sort. From the film's chaste depiction of physical love to the way it flirts with - but never entirely confronts - violence, Priscilla acknowledges the existence of certain issues but doesn't get very deep with them. But that's okay because this is not that kind of film. This is a small, simple story about healing, acceptance and reconciliation - governed by an irreverent sense of its own relative unimportance. In other words, this movie about three bitchy queens plowing their huge, gleaming, purple bus through the primordial brush of Australia is one of the most pleasantly inoffensive movies I've ever seen.

Now you HAVE to see it.



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