While the plot of this Australian film may seem a bit familiar (The Ugly Duckling meets Dirty Dancing), the whimsical tone and superb dance sequences will make you forget the movie’s predictability. Scott (Paul Mercurio) is a champion ballroom dancer who wants to dance “his own steps.” Fran is the homely, beginning dancer who convinces Scott that he should dance his own steps… with her. Complicating matters are Scott’s domineering mother (Pat Thompson), a former dancer herself, who wants her son to win the Australian Pan Pacific Championship (the same contest she lost years ago), and a conniving dance committee that is determined that “there are no new steps!” The dancing is enjoyable, yet not overwhelming, and the movie strives hard not to take itself too seriously (the beginning of the film is even styled as a pseudo-documentary). Strictly Ballroom, while not so subtly imparting its moral (“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived”), is a laughable romp that’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Studio: Miramax Films
Year: 1992
Release Date: November 23, 2010
Run time: 94 minutes
Rating: PG

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 mix
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Disc Spec: 1 DVD
Region: A

Baz Luhrmann made a splash with his sparkling musical “Moulin Rouge,” but before that film, he made a little splash with the colorful romantic dance film “Strictly Ballroom.” It lacks the polish of his later works, but romantics will love the ugly-duckling love story.

Scott (Paul Mercurio) shatters a ballroom dancing contest when he suddenly breaks from routine and begins dancing his own exuberant steps. His mother (Pat Thompson) is shattered, and his diva dance partner (a very made-up Gia Carides) drops him for a champion. But Scott still wants to dance his own steps, not the rigidly prescribed ballroom dances — even if it means he won’t win.

As he’s dancing, plain Fran (Tara Morice) appears in the dance studio and begs Scott to take her as his partner — she loved his dancing, and she wants to dance with him, even if they won’t win. At first he refuses, but then he starts teaching her to dance at night. And despite the interference of potential partners and irate families, the two begin to fall in love — and dance to set the floor on fire.

The story is extremely simple, so much so that at times it starts repeating itself. Okay, we have the free-spirit-learns-to-be-true-to-himself, plus an ugly-duckling-falls-for-a-swan story. But it’s the execution that is charming, full of color and fire and outstanding dancing. And its simplicity keeps it from feeling rushed, although the complications late in the film seem rather contrived.

Luhrmann is known for his use of color and textured scenery, and it doesn’t fail him here — though some scenes are relatively bland, he throws in splashes of red and flashing lights, such as the giant Coke sign that flashes behind the dance partners. The ballroom competition is a spectacular opener. And the choreography is outstanding — the actors exude sensuality and sexiness, mingled with a sort of worldly innocence.

Paul Mercurio is an okay actor, but a spectacular dancer. It’s impossible to see him dance (a mix of Latin dance, Riverdance, and breakdance) without feeling a thrill. Tara Morice, with less spectacular dancing, is excellent as the plain, awkward Fran. The secondary characters like diva dancer Liz and stage mother Shirley tend to be two-dimensional. The exception is Barry Otto as Scott’s dad, who dances his own wild moves when no one is watching..
Movie Content: 9/10

Special Features

This special edition DVD includes an audio commentary from 2002 with Luhrmann, Choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell and Production Designer Catherine Martin and a new half-hour chronicle of the story behind the film, which was a Cinderella story in itself, from a student musical to a plucky little film with a first-time director and star to a dubious opening with a negative review, all the way to a Cannes Film Festival award win. This film was quite a change of pace in its day, many years before the dawn of popular TV dance competition shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

Special Features: 7/10

Final Thoughts

Both a decent little movie in its own right and a sly, tongue-in-cheek play on formulaic dance movies/ugly duckling pictures, Strictly Ballroom is an amusing and entertaining romp that will win over even the more hardened cynics.
Overall Rating: 8/10