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Australia 2014
Directed by
Samantha Lang
91 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


This ABC telemovie about the life of Richard Byron aka Carol Bryon aka Carlotta, Australia’s most famous showgirl and a pioneer of what today is known as gender reassignment is a heavy-handed affair that diligently conforms to the conventions of the “I gotta be me” narrative, complete with a gold sequined finale “This Is My Life”.

From the get-go with young Richard performing the Gershwins’ “S’Wonderful” before his parents’ guests in the living room of his Balmain home in the early 1960s, Samantha Lang's film dishes up a familiar sequence of events – trying on his mother’s lippy when she’s out, an awkward teenager being introduced to the behind-closed-doors world of the GBLT scene of the day, then leaping forward to her life as a showgirl and her gender-reassignment  and  a brief marriage before her ultimate identification with her “Carlotta” persona where she remains to this day.

Whilst dramatically neither David Hannam’s script nor Lang’s direction ever goes beyond the superficial, relying on familiar characterizations and situations (and some gauche dialogue: "But I've been inside you" remarks Carlotta's boyfriend when she tells him that she used to be a man) to tell Carlotta’s story and glossing over what is still today relatively unfamiliar subject matter: Richard’s gender reassignment is achieved with breathtaking ease.  On the other hand the film gives a lot of screen time to mincing queens and over-the-top mummery.

Whilst one understands the reason why the decision was made, the casting of Jessica Marais in the lead creates substantial problems as it results in a very awkward first part to the film, with the actress transparently not a teenage boy. Once we jump past this phase Marais is much more effective (though one wonders how Carol acquired such a fine pair of boobs so quickly, not to mention, later on, a vagina) but then we are faced with the fact of a woman playing a transgender male – it pretty much defeats the point. Eamon Farren on the other hand is very effective as Carlotta’s best friend, Ava, as is Caroline O'Connor as the dance instructor who helped put "Les Girls" on the map.

The art direction and wardrobe design with their recreation of 1960’s fashions are a pleasure whilst Anita Hegh stands out as Richard/Carol’s frustrated party girl mother turned dutiful housewife.  Some stock footage of King’s Cross of the time is used but that unfortunately is largely it as far as the film goes in recreating the iconic Antipodean Sodom and Gommorah.

With not enough bite in the drama to move us and not enough camp razzle-dazzle to qualify as a guilty pleasure, Carlotta falls somewhere in between, which, given that the real Carlotta was best known for outraging the conventions of her time, is more than a little ironic.




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