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Pretty Red Dress

Written and directed by Dionne Edwards 

Reviewed by Danielle Papamichael 

 

Dionne Edwards’ daring debut, Pretty Red Dress, features popstar and X Factor winner Alexandra Burke in a striking breakout role. Selected for the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, this queer family drama boldly questions the ingrained societal norms related to identity and gender roles. Particularly with a focus on challenging depictions of Black masculinity. 

Taking place in South London, ex-convict Travis (Natey Jones) wants to become a reliable figure in his family’s life. Whilst he was away Candice (Alexandra Burke), his musical and glamourous long-term girlfriend had to raise their troubled teenage daughter Kenisha (Temilola Olatunbosun) alone. 

Travis consciously avoids going back to the career that led to his imprisonment, one which previously allowed him to lavishly provide for his family. Now with a criminal record affecting job prospects, the opportunities are slim. The pressure escalates further when Candice sets her sights on an expensive dazzling red dress, a necessity to portray her idol Tina Turner for her dream audition in a renowned West End musical. Not wanting to disappoint Candice he splashes out on the dress, forcing him to reluctantly take a humiliating dishwashing job from his belittling, smarmy older brother Clive (Rolan Bell).

Once the beautifully beaded gown enters their home, its bewitching promise of glitz and glamour unexpectedly calls out to Travis. When he’s alone in the flat, he tries it on with innocent curiosity and excitement. For those brief vulnerable moments, he transforms into someone free from the heavy burdens of machoism. Like Peter Strickland’s horror-comedy In Fabric the hypnotic red dress disrupts the status-quo whilst causing havoc for its suiters. In several anxiety inducing scenes, when Travis is caught by Candice or Kenisha, he protests that it was all one big prank. Their initial judgmental reactions corner him into a place of secrecy and shame. In an interview with the BFI, Edwards expressed that she enjoys “wearing men’s clothing, as do many women, but men are demonised for doing the same. Why?”. An issue that Pretty Red Dress forces the viewer to confront. 

Throughout the film Travis is not the sole character grappling with self-denial. Kenisha has not openly embraced her homosexuality at home, as the fear of deepening the rift in her already strained relationship with her mother keeps her silent. Candice’s responses to these delicate subjects are far from perfect, as she’s brimming with her own insecurities and aspirations, desperate to swap her role in a supermarket for one on stage. Her initial resistance represents society’s viewpoint, yet her ability to listen allows her to become a character of warmth and understanding.

Edwards skilfully blends social realism with the force of Tina Turner’s musical influence to craft a compelling narrative filled with depth and optimism, delving into her characters’ innermost desires while promoting empowerment, resilience, and strength. 

Pretty Red Dress is a refreshingly playful film, full of musical flair and emotional weight. Cinematographer Adam Scarth uses warm, vintage tones and grainy texture to create an inviting, timeless landscape. One that allows Alexandra Burke, Natey Jones and Temilola Olatunbosun to perform with brilliant nuance and authenticity. From heart-breaking to heart-warming, Pretty Red Dress is a reminder that the courage to live your truth will always triumph over living for other people’s acceptance.

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