REVIEW: Pretty Red Dress (2023, dir. Dionne Edwards)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 110 mins

UK Distributor: BFI

WHO’S IN PRETTY RED DRESS?

Natey Jones, Alexandra Burke, Temilola Olatunbosun, Rolan Bell, Eliot Sumner, Nicholas Bishop, Maria Almeida, Ben Caplan, James McNicholas, Edwin De La Renta, Thomas Grant, Emeka Sesay, Adé Dee Haastrup, Maria Crittell, Eddison Joseph

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Dionne Edwards (director, writer), Georgia Goggin (producer), Brijs (composer), Bernin Isaac (cinematographer), Andonis Trattos (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

An ex-convict (Jones) questions his personal desires when he becomes fascinated with a dress…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON PRETTY RED DRESS?

Toxic masculinity is rightfully being questioned and challenged in today’s more open-minded society, but as with any behavioural anomaly the best way to examine and analyse someone’s overt display of manliness is to look deeper. What might be causing such an obvious case of insecurity surrounding one’s gender identity, and more importantly why might that be? In the case of the protagonist in writer-director Dionne Edwards’ feature debut Pretty Red Dress, there seems to be an underlying reluctance to accept who they truly are without it, and it is this notion that is explored in this rather pleasing and upbeat family drama.

The film opens – straight after an upbeat musical number opening credit sequence lifted straight from the 60s and 70s – with said protagonist Travis (Natey Jones) being released from prison, and back into the arms of his performer partner Candice (Alexandra Burke) and their teenage daughter Kenisha (Temilola Olatunbosun). Travis publicly projects himself as a macho figure, right down to his hard-man walk through the streets of South London, and his jealous glare when witnessing his more successful brother Clive (Rolan Bell) flirt with “his woman”. One day, after Candice gets an audition for the role of Tina Turner in a new stage musical, Travis gets her a bright and sparkly red dress for her to wear during the tryout, but soon it becomes apparent that he didn’t just buy it for her. Drawn to its magnetic prettiness, Travis begins wearing the dress and admiring himself in it, unlocking a hidden desire within himself that he later struggles to keep hidden from his family and his macho acquaintances.

What’s clever about Edwards’ script is that, at first, you think you have the plot to this movie figured out: an ex-convict trying to lead an honest life and reconnect with his loved ones, but soon his criminal past catches up with him. Not so much here, for Pretty Red Dress proudly walks in an entirely different direction, gently subverting most expectations by favouring a more intimate and sobering look at gender and sexual identity instead. Edwards takes considerable time to establish the prominent (sometimes comically so) masculine energy that Natey Jones’s Travis believes he is deeply embedded in, which makes later scenes when he’s trying on not just the pretty red dress of the title but also feminine underwear and make-up products much more impactful and, in their own way, freeing. This central journey from the façade of the manly man to the truer sensitive soul has a decent slow-burn pace to it, allowing Edwards to explore as much as she can the deconstruction of the male figure that would normally, in a film like this, focus far too much on the masculine aspects rather than anything else.

It isn’t just Travis’s identity that Edwards wishes to subvert here, with scenes dedicated to not just Alexandra Burke’s Candice wrestling with her own ideas of femininity, many of which often clash with the personal arcs of other main characters, but also Temilola Olatunbosun’s troubled teen Kenisha who is similarly exploring her own sexuality and finding it hard to open up about her issues with anyone close to her. It creates a highly interesting and unique family dynamic, one with its own share of highs and lows for all involved, but always connected by an undying love for one another, even when they find it difficult to admit such feelings of love themselves. The lead performances from Jones, Burke and Olatunbosun are excellent, because they feel like a real family unit while also being unafraid to tap into their characters’ less desirable traits which make them a lot more three-dimensional.

Beyond those components, there’s a lot of other stuff to like about Pretty Red Dress, from its mature handling of themes about gender stereotypes and sexual identity, to a rousing soundtrack set primarily to Tina Turner’s back catalogue (which, wholly unintentionally, makes this a surprisingly moving tribute to the singer in the wake of her recent passing). It is a confident first feature from Edwards, only slightly held back by the occasional mishandling of certain plot strands as well as characters who are mainly just there to be stock antagonistic figures and not much else (you can tell who the smarmy bad guy is because they’re the one wearing a turtleneck with a gold chain around their neck).

There is definitely an air of Kinky Boots and The Full Monty about it, in the sense that it is also a joyous slice of crowd-pleasing entertainment that happen to explore sexual expression outside what some people consider normal, and Pretty Red Dress could easily slip into that company of films if it plays its cards right with audiences.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Pretty Red Dress is a crowd-pleasing and upbeat exploration of gender stereotypes and sexual identity that writer-director Dionne Edwards, along with three outstanding lead turns by Natey Jones, Alexandra Burke and Temilola Olatunbosun, conveys with heart and compassion.

Pretty Red Dress is now showing in cinemas nationwide

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