Jthere is warmth, humor, sadness and tenderness in this kind-hearted debut feature from writer-director Dionne Edwards. It’s a film about masculinity that could have been solemn and prescriptive; instead, it vibrates with humanity, thanks in large part to the extraordinary performances of its protagonists Natey Jones, Alexandra Burke, and smart newcomer Temilola Olatunbosun.
Burke is already known as the West End performer, recording star and X Factor winner; she plays Candice, a singer about to land the role of a lifetime playing Tina Turner in a major musical – just a few more auditions to go. But she has problems: her teenage daughter Kenisha (Olatunbosun) is having trouble at school and her partner, Travis (Jones) has just been released from prison on license, his ankle tag giving him a strange and sinister limp.
Travis was a DJ and music entrepreneur before crime dragged him down: he was going to be Beyoncé’s Jay-Z from Candice. At first glance, Travis is a scary badass, whose mere presence appeases some boys who are too loud in their field. But Travis isn’t Ike Turner: he’s romantic and gallant, and he buys Candice a beautiful, inspiring red dress for her audition, paying for her by accepting a humiliating menial job in the pub owned by his overbearing older brother. This amazing shimmering red dress hangs on the back of their bedroom door like a ghost or a fetish, almost a new addition to their family. And Travis, who has nothing to do all day but hang out in the apartment alone, is mesmerized by the sensuality of the dress and wonders how this dress would feel if he tried it on himself- same.
The inevitable moment when Candice comes home unexpectedly in the early afternoon is carried off by Jones and Burke with great skill. Travis tries to name it, claiming he was up to some goofy panto prank and Burke shows how Candice is shocked, bewildered, angry but infinitely willing to be tricked into believing the excuses in order to preserve everything she believed about her partner and their relationship. And there’s more pain when Kenisha gets sucked into the cover-up and perpetuates secrets and lies.
Pretty Red Dress is a film with a passing resemblance to Julian Jarrold’s 2005 comedy Kinky Boots starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as a drag artist who helps a factory in crisis make custom shoes with reinforced high heels for performers like him. There’s actually a similar problem here: the cute red dress isn’t made for a male body like Travis’ and it tears disastrously. Kinky Boots has been converted into a musical and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Pretty Red Dress follow the same path with a dozen newly written songs, and there’s a bespoke star with Burke. But in some ways, it would be a shame to risk losing the intimacy and complexity of Pretty Red Dress in a theatrical version. Either way, it’s an intensely likeable film with a trio of great performances.