From the brilliant mind of outlandish Australian director Baz Luhrmann, this iconic 1992 film (the first in his famed Red Curtin Trilogy), is one I’ve felt a strong connection with for many years. Mostly tied to some of my best high school memories (I received it to study in class), independent of that, it’s also just a great piece of Aussie entertainment and a wonderful love story!
Adapted from a play written by Luhrmann and some other students at the Sydney National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in 1984, the basic plot follows young competitive ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) and his struggle to compete using his own flashy and unconventional steps instead of the more traditionally accepted routines in the lead up to the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. Strenuously discouraged from this dream that bucks the status quo by his mother Shirley (a former competitive dancer with his father Doug, and current teacher), his original partner Liz, and the Australian Federation dancing officials, Scott eventually agrees to partner with Fran (Tara Morice), a largely ignored beginner student at Shirley’s dance studio. As they practice in secret, they become more and more in tune with each another, and gradually fall in love.
Their partnership threatened by pressure on Scott to leave Fran in favour of dancing champion Tina Sparkle, he sticks by her, and they receive fresh inspiration from Fran’s wise grandmother and passionate father, resulting in them creating their own version of a fiery Paso Doble as their Pan-Pacific dance. Though Scott caves and go back to Liz further on in the film after learning his father had a secret love of dancing moves outside the mandated rules as well and how it ruined his and Shirley’s careers, Doug sets the record straight in the nick of time, encouraging his son to be braver than he ever was and stop living in fear. With these words ringing in his ears, Scott convinces Fran to dance with him. Battling through several more last-ditch efforts at sabotage, they make a triumphant finish. Joined on the floor by the audience as everyone starts dancing together, Scott and Fran seal their relationship with a kiss.
Exploring the themes of personal expression, artistic repression, acceptance of change and creativity through the lens of the Australian dance world, this film is a celebration of the underdogs and misfits, and an exhortation to not be afraid to make your own mark and take a chance. Strictly Ballroom was also a bit of an underdog itself all throughout production, as not only was it Baz’s debut as a cinematic director, itwas also professional dancer Paul Mercurio’s acting debut, and Tara Morice’s first film role after acting in many stage productions (including playing Fran in the Strictly Ballroom play in 1988!)
The filming style Baz employed is incredibly unique and fun, using a fourth wall breaking, interview approach much like The Office, which works wonderfully well with the type of story being told. Its superbly fantastical and loud dance costumes deserve a shout-out too, being appropriately intricate and theatrical. The much tongue-in-cheek script is also at turns hysterical (the little asides from Scott’s little sister and her partner are especially great!) and genuinely inspiring, and the music chosen the perfect accompaniment, with the dance practice montage to Time After Time and Scott and Fran’s seriously swoony, stripped back, intense dance to Doris Day’s Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps in particular just overflowing with nostalgia and simmering romantic tension. I must also give props to John Paul Young’s song Love is in the Air, which closes out the film.
Speaking of love, the romance that develops between Scott and Fran is another wonderful layer in this movie. Taking its inspiration from the Cinderella/Ugly Duckling tropes, Fran experiences the most obvious transformation as she becomes a better dancer and falls in love, going from being frumpy in appearance and unsure of herself to getting rid of her glasses and figure-hiding clothes as she grows in self-confidence. Though it’s a more internal one, Scott also goes through his own journey in learning to free himself of other people’s imposed restrictions on his dancing, while also becoming a little less selfish and more open-minded because of Fran’s influence.
Facing setbacks with funding and numerous people underestimating and dismissing it, Strictly Ballroom became one of the biggest financial and critical success stories in Australian cinema history. With its timeless message of ‘a life lived in fear is a life half lived,’ Australian vernacular and strong personality, this film has rightly earned its place as a gold-standard 90s Aussie classic in our national lexicon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hopeless romantic, fervent bibliophile, and aspiring word-smith, Kirsty Pearce also has a deep love for fantasy, fairy tales, & history. With a wide range of TV obsessions from Outlander, Bitten, & Grimm, to Dancing With The Stars, Nikita, & Horrible Histories, she enjoys watching as many Hallmark films as possible, knitting, baking, and sharing all her fan-girl thoughts on her blog.