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Kinky Boots

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 02/23/06 15:49:25

"Fit for comfort"
3 stars (Average)

When the producers of Calendar Girls were auditioning directors for their new movie, they pitched it as “Ken Loach meets Pedro Almodovar”. The finished product, Kinky Boots, lacks the startling originality suggested by that stylistic collision. It’s more like a postscript to the trend of feel-good movies characterised by The Full Monty: movies that good-naturedly mine for their humour the clash of sexual frankness and provincial conservatism.

To Harold Price (Robert Pugh), a shoe “is the most beautiful thing in the world”. So he’s profoundly disappointed when his son Charlie (Joel Edgerton) leaves Northampton and the century-old family business, Price & Sons. Charlie is following his snooty fiancée, Nicola (Jemima Rooper), to London and a career in marketing when he learns his father is dead. Charlie is now owner of a shoe factory he doesn’t want, complete with a warehouse of men’s shoes that the buying public don’t much want either.

Charlie begins the unpleasant task of closing down the factory and making the staff redundant. One of the workers, Lauren (Sarah Jane Potts), challenges him to find a niche in the shoe market that will allow them to continue production. On an otherwise unsuccessful business trip to London, Charlie unexpectedly bumps into that new niche market – in the shape of a six-foot tall, muscle-bound transvestite and drag club singer named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor). “Whatever Lola wants – Lola gets” is her signature tune at the gay Angel Club in Soho. What Lola really wants is a pair of thigh-high kinky boots with a stiletto heel strong enough to carry a man’s weight (“two and a half feet of irresistible, tubular sex”).

Kinky Boots is “inspired” by the true story of Northampton shoemaker Steve Pateman. Cheap imported shoes from Asia and Eastern Europe flooded the English market for traditional men’s shoes, so Pateman began manufacturing “kinky boots” for transvestites in a bid to save his business. (Ironically, given one of the movie’s subplots, he eventually had to sell the factory – which was converted into designer apartments – but he continues to run the kinky boot business.)

The script is by Tim Firth (Calendar Girls) and Goeff Deane and it embellishes Pateman’s life into a predictably rousing arc. The English seem to be particularly adept at this sort of story, because they are comfortable acknowledging their prudishness about sex and can see that it’s comic (the Americans still have a long way to go). But take away the sexuality, and Kinky Boots is really about the eternal conflict between old and new, in the form of father against son, country versus city and tradition versus innovation.

Kinky Boots is also, not surprisingly, about “fitting in” – you expect that when a large black transvestite comes to work in a boot factory. But Firth and Deane draw out a parallel story of Charlie’s discomfort at following in his father’s footsteps and his difficulty in being taken seriously by his employees. It’s typical of American mainstream movies for sons to idolise fathers, but Charlie and Lola (aka Simon) are both scarred by their inability to feel comfortable in their own shoes. This shared painfulness about their fathers binds two wildly different men and gives Kinky Boots a beating heart.

Lola is a terrific creation, and brought to life with great panache by Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity). The first 20 minutes is all build-up for Lola’s first appearance; with all those washed-out grey midlands skies, the movie is begging for some colour and dynamism. Ejiofor supplies it in spades, striding across the nightclub stage, firing putdown barbs at hecklers, booming rather than singing his show numbers to the audience (no lip syncing for Lola!). He gets all the best lines of course, stomping on Charlie’s tentative homophobia at their first meeting with a withering “don’t flatter yourself” and explaining the difference between transvestites and drag queens thus: “put a drag queen in a frock and you get Kylie, put a transvestite in a frock and you get Boris Yeltsin with lipstick”.

Australian actor Joel Edgerton, in his first international starring role, holds his own against Ejiofor by not trying to compete. He’s playing a pushover, bullied by everyone from his girlfriend to his father to Lola, but Edgerton makes him likeable (if you recognise him, chances are it’s from his small role as Owen Lars in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). He has presence enough not to fade into the background, and is never diminished by his character’s failures. Charlie triumphs alongside Lola, and they make a terrific pair. Sarah-Jane Potts, Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) and Linda Bassett are all effective in minor roles.

Director Julian Jarrold’s background is in television, and he relies on the actors to give an otherwise pedestrian movie the jolt of energy it needs. The opening scenes are a mess of flashbacks to Charlie and Lola’s childhoods, and the scenes of Charlie leaving, his father dying and his return from London pile on top of each other as if all occurring on the same day. There are cheery montages of factory life that looked old in 1930s movies and Jarrold overdoes the ground-level shots of shoes walking. They are not used for any useful purpose - like establishing character - so they prove more tiresome than cute.

Jarrold does have a good eye for faces and spaces. Working alongside Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld (The King), he makes creative use of a working shoe factory (Trickers in Northampton) as a setting. Half the Trickers’ workforce took part as extras, and Soho drag queens populate the club: all details that help establish believable context. Robbie Williams’ ex-songwriting partner, Guy Chambers, arranged the music. It runs the gamut from Nina Simone to glam-era David Bowie and an appropriately cheesy medley of camp classics for a closing flourish.

Ironically for a movie about a businessman willing to take enormous risks, the makers of Kinky Boots play it safe. They don’t vary the formula greatly from their own Calendar Girls template, or previous hits like The Full Monty. For all that, the movie boasts the instant familiarity and bounce of a well-crafted pop tune – you’re left buoyed in its wake.

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