The latest in a series of fantastic historical telemovies from the ABC, Carlotta is a crowd pleasing – and emotional – retelling of the life of Australia’s most famous transgender pioneer.
Richard Byron (Jessica Marais) is an unhappy kid from working class Balmain, when as a teenager he finds work in a Kings Cross department store – and Christopher (Socratis Otto) and Danny (Eamon Farren) take him under their wing, and introduce him to Sydney’s underground drag scene. So begins Richard’s transformation into Carol, and onstage persona Carlotta – Australia’s most famous showgirl – much to the disapproval of her distressed mother (Anita Hegh).
Made with the blessing and cooperation of Carol Byron herself, Carlotta was never going to be a warts and all portrait of this Australian icon – but it’s an enjoyably glossy exercise that will have you captivated for 90 minutes. Director Samantha Lang deftly navigates the emotional highs and lows of Carol’s early career, and while the film essentially sidesteps most of Kings Cross’ seedier undertones, it’s a loving recreation of Australia’s past that’s often a highly entertaining watch.
While the filmmakers were initially met with (unwarranted) criticism for casting Jessica Marais in the title role, her performance is a stunning one – as Marais navigates just about every emotion on the spectrum with unwavering candour. She’s bold, brassy and charming on the stage, but also excels in the film’s quieter moments – Carol’s short-lived relationship with Peter (Ryan Johnson) is particularly heartbreaking. The rest of the cast is equally as strong, particularly Anita Hegh as Carol’s mother, Eamon Farren as her best friend Danny (and fellow diva Ava) – and Caroline O’Connor, stealing the show as usual as the Les Girls resident choreographer.
Ultimately, Carlotta is an enjoyable, yet shallow, film that serves as a timely reminder for Australia’s progress with the rights of LGBT people – we’ve made a little headway, but there’s much further to go.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Carlotta is available on DVD through ABC TV now.