Kinky Boots (2006)

[1 May 2006]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

A Man's World

Look to the heel, young man. The sex is in the heel.
—Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the reason to see Kinky Boots. Always charismatic and compelling, he is here also fabulous. He first appears from a distance, espied by Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) in a dark London Soho alley. From across the street, Ejiofor’s Lola is surrounded by mean-looking lads. The fact that Lola is wearing a short skirt and phenomenal boots inspires Charlie to charge into the fray. But as soon as he arrives on scene, he’s struck down, at which point he feebly looks up into the night and sees blurry lights and then, Lola looming. Gazing down on him, Lola purrs, “Very sweet, you riding to my rescue. Very Prince Charming. Pass me my boobs.” 

Charlie’s not a little surprised that he’s tried to save a man in a dress. He’s visiting the city from Northampton, where he’s trying very hard to salvage his recently deceased father’s shoe business. Unable to sell enough Oxfords to keep his employees paid and worrying his materialistic fiancŽe Nicola (Jemima Rooper), Charlie has gone out for the evening. Little did he expect to end up conversing after hours with a drag queen, who assures him that she’s okay: “A girl has to know how to look out for herself these days.” 

She invites Charlie to see her show, which is, in a word, sensational. “I wanna be evil,” she sings, “I wanna spit tacks.” Charlie is stunned, and then intrigued. Back at the shoe factory the next day, he’s reminded of the lagging sales when he has to fire longtime workers. Nicola has other “issues.” For one thing, she wants a wedding he’ll need a loan to pay for, and for another, she wants to move out of town, a desire he shares, though he’s feeling increasingly tied to his dad’s legacy and his employees’ needs. While she natters on about the wedding plans, he’s realizing that his focus is shifting: “I made 15 people redundant today Nic,” he sighs. Not long afterwards, he’s back on the train to London, looking for a distraction. 

Instead, Charlie finds a purpose. Or at least, he finds a partner. Noticing that Lola and her fellow queens’ high heels tend to be teetery, as they are, after all, made for women, whose weight distributions are decidedly different from theirs. He proposes that he design and make shoes and boots for this specific new set of clients. Lola’s suspicious, but impressed. After all, she says, “You came all this way for my advice? I feel like Oprah!” 

Indeed. Lola ends up being Charlie’s major source of inspiration as well as advice. While the movie generally suggests that Charlie and Lola bond over shared dreams and similar backgrounds (both had distant or otherwise difficult parents, neither was quite the son his father imagined having), Charlie’s the one most in need of basic life adjustment suggestions. Take, for instance, that fiancŽe: she’s so plainly not “right” for him that you wonder from frame one just what they’re doing together. Her exit allows Charlie to take up with one of his employees, the plucky-lovely Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts). In another movie, this might be considered workplace harassment, but as she’s so nice and he’s so fundamentally nerdy, the romance is cast as an “awakening” for dear Charlie. Besides, Lola practically has to push him into Lauren’s arms (“Perhaps,” Lauren observes, “What women secretly desire is a man who is fundamentally a woman”).

As Lola agrees to help Charlie with his career-reclaiming project—he is so not a designer of fantastic footwear—she also agrees to live in Northampton, which means she’s removed from her own life and friends, her comforts and risks (“Lola does not do North,” she announces, then recants). Here Kinky Boots poses other kinds of questions. If Lola is not precisely at physical risk in the (relative) boonies, she is at risk of alienation and mundane cruelty. The other workers at the factory see her as “sick,” and plainly feel threatened by her mere presence on the floor. (One guy goes so far as to challenge her to an arm wrestling contest, which the worker sees as the means of declaring proper masculinity.) And, despite her extravagant displays of confidence—strutting in to work in full drag and then, in another approach, arriving in regular guy’s clothes, both performative wonders—Lola reveals to Charlie her own insecurities, her hope for approval and her loneliness. 

Not that Lola’s loneliness is this film’s concern. She’s in place to make Charlie’s life better, to show him how to loosen up, to trust in others, to take risks. Charlie, for his part, is only the latest in a long line of British film protagonists who learns to love his provincial sensibility and community, even if he does invite the more adventurous members along for a bit of a ride into the future. Or the present. Or maybe just another dimension. That he makes the leap with help from Lola, bringing the extravagant wonders of gender-bending into his dullsville existence, sets up a conventional opposition and trajectory. It may be very Prince Charming, but it’s a story that’s definitively old. 

Sadly, Lola’s own emotional career is relegated to subplot (and any sexual life is barely mentioned). The boys bond over their effort to bring the new shoe collection to the hugely important Fashion Week in Milan, where they mean to dazzle the snooty regulars with their amazing designs, by now working together on designs, following Charlie’s first mistake: burgundy boots (“Red!” moans Lola. “Rule one! Red!”). The collection is to be exhibited by Lola and her virtuoso drag-performer friends, all so outclassing everyone else on the runway that you wonder why this is a first time for this idea. It’s very nice for Charlie to learn his life lessons, but the film offers little in the way of insights or surprises… except for Ejiofor, who is awesome and wonderful and brilliant.

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