The surprise 1994 Australian hit—which introduced Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce to international audiences and by all rights should have propelled writer/director Stephan Elliott to a career that somehow has never quite happened—The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert remains both an unalloyed delight and a surprisingly human, moving film. It was, in fact, sold on its camp value. The story, after all, is about two flashy drag queens (Weaving and Pearce) and a transsexual (Terence Stamp in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance) traveling in a broken-down camper bus (dubbed Priscilla) through the Australian outback—a plot that gave it a slightly false reputation as little more than an outrageous comedy. The truth is that it’s a good deal more. It’s a story of friendship, bonding and tolerance—wrapped in the promised comedy. What’s perhaps more surprising is how gentle and good-natured the comedy is. It’s rarely, if ever, mean-spirited, which makes the occasional outbursts of homophobia that greet the trio all the more effective.
The film also proves that it is indeed possible to use ABBA songs—and several disposable disco tunes—to great effect, even to the point of making them relevant and moving. It helps that the characters themselves—with the exception of Pearce’s Adam/Felicia—have no illusions about the songs’ intrinsic merit beyond their catchy appeal. (Indeed, Terence Stamp’s implicitly threatening remark, “I’ve said it before—no more fucking ABBA,” ran through my head several times when I saw Mamma Mia!.) If you’ve never seen Priscilla, it’s high time you rectified that. If you have, it’s certainly worth revisiting this old friend.