When Pretty Red Dress premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October last year, it turned into a bit of a crossover event. With its star, Alexandra Burke, and its choreographer, Johannes Radebe, in attendance, it inevitably attracted a crowd that the rest of the festival didn’t. Fans of The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing were suddenly in a far less mainstream setting than a lot of them would be used to, and Pretty Red Dress presented a similarly far less mainstream narrative.
Written and directed by Dionne Edwards in her solo feature film debut, it stars Burke as Candice, an aspiring musical theatre star working towards her big audition to play her idol, Tina Turner. She’s also a lone parent to a complicated teenager, Kenisha (Temilola Olatunbosun). The father of the family, Travis (Natey Jones), is just about to come out of prison to rejoin the family dynamic, something that brings its own challenges. As a statement of intent to the family he’s re-integrating into, Travis buys Candice the titular pretty red dress that she so desperately needs for her audition.
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The story finds its feet as Travis and Kenisha explore their sexualities, neither of which are readily accepted in the community that they come from. Travis finds himself drawn to Candice’s dress, and he takes every opportunity to wear it. Kenisha leads a secret life of her own as she gets to know a girl at school in a romantic sense, something that she instinctively hides from the rest of her family. Pretty Red Dress is a film that carries tremendous weight in the topics it explores, but it does it with the effervescence of a West End Musical.
Some of the intrigue around Pretty Red Dress comes from the fact that Dionne Edwards would have been able to attract a name such as Alexandra Burke to it. This is Burke’s first feature film as an actress, but it comes across as a bold choice. It’s an indie production without any other big names attached to it in an on-screen capacity, and it’s a narrative that tackles something that wouldn’t easily be described as accessible to a wide audience.
The BFI’s Blu-ray release goes some way to address how and why it all happened, with an insightful commentary track from Edwards herself alongside producer Georgia Goggin. Just hearing the two of them recount such a positive experience in filmmaking as we see the result of their work is heartwarming, but it also acts for a good basis to then go and watch another special feature.
‘Picking Up the Thread’ is a documentary feature where Goggin walks us through the production history of Pretty Red Dress. Not only is it interesting on an academic level, answering questions of how Alexandra Burke and Johannes Radebe came on board, but it’s also essential viewing for anyone feeling lost when it comes to making a film in the current UK climate. We get extensive access to details on how funding was secured, just how many sources of funding were necessary to make the dream come true, and what its measures of success are from a more business-orientated point of view.
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Before Edwards made her feature film debut, there was Hello Moses, a short that she wrote and directed six years previously. This is also included as a special feature, and it explores a similar theme of discovering sexuality that Pretty Red Dress does. Ella (Danaë Jean Marie) is an eighteen-year-old who had her first fight six years ago, around the time that she first discovered sex. Predictably, it’s a far darker piece of work. There are comparisons to be drawn between Ella in Hello Moses and Travis and Kenisha from Pretty Red Dress, as they’re all characters working towards sexual enlightenment and wider acceptance. The two make a compelling double bill, with enough distinction among their similarities to complement one another.
Pretty Red Dress is a fascinating film in a number of ways, and it’s certainly impressive that a debut feature filmmaker has managed to present such heavy topics in such an accessible manner. BFI’s Blu-ray release treats it with the respect it deserves, and gives us an appropriate amount of additional reading for such an intriguing piece of work. Whether or not it has achieved any kind of instant classic or cult status remains to be seen, but it’s certainly been treated as if it has.
Pretty Red Dress is out now on Blu-ray from the BFI.