Your level of interest in R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue will depend a great deal on your level of interest in the world of high fashion and fashion magazines. And if you are interested in such matters, you might want to bump the rating up a half star, but probably no further, because this purported inside look at Vogue editor Anna Wintour is so inside that it has no real intention of letting you inside with it. It’s easy to tell early on that Ms. Wintour has little intention of letting us learn much of anything from her.
The film is largely predicated on the idea that audiences are primed for a look at the real Anna Wintour, thanks to Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)—a characterization based at least in part on Wintour. The problem with this is that Streep’s Miranda Priestley is a darn sight more entertaining than Anna Wintour—and strangely, Streep is more sympathetic. The catch, of course, is that Streep is playing a character being seen without the knowledge that a camera is trained on her. Wintour is obviously aware that she’s under scrutiny—and she’s giving away as little as possible. A bit of the human being sneaks in late in the film, when she talks about her family and their apparent disdain for her profession. However, this doesn’t do much to make her any less enigmatic or any more interesting.
The structure of The September Issue—none too surprisingly—follows the creation of the Manhattan-telephone-directory sized September issue of Vogue (in this case, the 2007 edition), which is their big-deal issue of the year. This works fairly well, allowing the viewer to see an issue of the magazine from inception to final product. It also affords the film a shape and some degree of drama. The bulk of the drama itself stems from the battle of art vs. commerce—with art being embodied by the movie’s real star, Grace Coddington, and commerce given over to Wintour.
Coddington, a former model with a mane of frizzy red hair and an apparent lack of concern for her personal appearance, is the person who visualizes what the photo spreads will be and how they will look. If you’ve never thought much about that while flipping through an issue of Vogue, you will after this film. (If you’re like me, you’ll occasionally feel like slapping Wintour over some of the amazing photos she nixes in the creation of the magazine.) If Coddington—whose relationship with Wintour is somewhat vaguely presented on the personal level—provides the vision that Wintour uses to shape the magazine, she also provides the film with the charisma and sympathy that holds it together. Without Coddington, the film would be barely human and deadly dull.
Coddington is fascinating. Watching the magazine come together is interesting. The film’s purported raison d’être of offering us a portrait of Anna Wintour, however, is ultimately shy of being compelling. Perhaps that’s the key to Wintour—the surface is all there is and her passion extends little beyond that. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t make for much in the way of drama. Rated PG-13 for language.