Dir: Gillian Armstrong. 82mins.Aus. 2006.
Feature director Gillian Armstrong (Charlotte Grey, Oscar And Lucinda) makes a successfulswitch to factual film-making with Unfolding Florence, her packed and perceptivedocumentary about the "many lives" of feisty high society proto-feminist,opportunist and self-reinventor Florence Broadhust.
The project - originallyplanned as a one-hour TV documentary until Armstrong signed on - also benefitsfrom a high-class script from award-winning theatre dramatist Katherine Thomsonand a hand-picked technical team.
Apolitical, uncontroversialand without a penguin in sight, UnfoldingFlorence possesses none of the elements that in recent years have ensuredtheatrical success for other documentaries.
But it should still find anaudience with older and female arthouse audiences, aswell as enjoying a profile on the festival circuit and TV and cable airings. Afterits world premiere in the world cinema: documentary competition at Sundance, UnfoldingFlorence is released in Australia on June 29.
Florence Broadhurstled an extraordinarily varied and vibrant life. Born in back-country Queenslandin 1899, she performed with a variety troupe in India, Burma and China duringthe 1920s before setting up her own Broadhurst ArtsAcademy in Shanghai.
During the 1930s she was afashion retailer ("Madame Pellier") in high-societyLondon, then presented herself back in snobby post-warSydney as a friend of royalty, painter and society leader. At 60 she began themost successful aspect of her life, as a designer of fantastical and highlyexpensive wallpaper.
Armstrong and Thomsonadeptly show how, just as Broadhurst tested each ofher personae and found it wanting, so she then wallpapered over them with a newstyle and invented background. As such she emerges as someone whose energeticdetermination and remarkable resilience have a huge impact on all around her.
At the same time thefilm-makers do not ignore her foul tempers, inveterate lying and motherlyshortcomings, as confirmed on screen by her long-suffering only son RobertLloyd-Lewis.
With only limited visualmaterial available, Armstrong and her regular editor Nicholas Beauman intercut a widelyresearched mass of archival footage that illuminates each facet of Broadhurst's varied life. Newly-shot 35mm scenes - withthree actors representing Florence at stages of her life (Garboas child, Price as go-getting young woman, lookalikeFarr as Florence in her elderly fame) - also work well.
These scenes often contraststarkly with the many conventional interviews filmed on high definition video,although creative cutting to the archive collection diverts attention fromtheir stolid staginess.
There is a pleasantlyirreverent use of family sphotographs by Sydney animation studio SV2 whichlends the material a Terry Gilliam approach. Family photographs and pictures ofBroadhurst on stage, in costume and in foreign citiesare brought to life Python-style as feetdance, large arrows point and backgrounds flash. It's a cheeky touch whichbrings humour to the piece while adding poignancy to subsequent events.
Armstrong reveals early onthat Florence met a blood-soaked end at the age of 78, murdered by person orpersons still unknown. Having made a weekend appointment at her empty wallpaperfactory, she was bludgeoned to death by a killer who exited the plant usingkeys only the owner's regular friends and workers were aware of.
Throughout, Armstrong intercuts shots of Florence, colourfully attired, sportingher bright red hair, walking purposefully to meet her fate. It's a cleverdevice, binding the many disparate elements of biography, forcing audienceconcentration on the escalating tension.
The final tribute to thisblazing survivor comes as Armstrong celebrates the worldwide revival ininterest in Florence's late-life designs, rounding off a remarkable tale toldwith respect and sisterly joie de vivre.
NSW Film & TV Office