FAFA: Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006)

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The Favourite Australian Film Assignment continues with Gillian Armstrong’s documentary Unfolding Florence. The film traces the life of a wallpaper designer socialite whose untimely murder made headlines back in 1977. Several interviews and a dramatization recount Broadhurst’s incredibly fascinating life.

Truth, lies, perception and manipulations ebb and flow throughout the film, presenting a commentary on the media, as well as notions of fame.

In a time long before the Internet, and long before people’s pasts were publicly uncovered, Broadhurst truly did live multiple lives. Growing up on a farm in Queensland, Broadhurst moved to Shanghai in the 1920s in the age of jazz, booze and wild nights. Working in a Vaudeville repertory group, Broadhurst returned to Australia after five years abroad. She soon departed for England, whereupon she recast herself as a Brit. Broadhurst returned once again to her native Australia, this time as a fashion designer with a British accent. She then became an artist, and her social status rose, as did her faux British accent.

Ideals of celebrity and stardom are all effectively discussed by use of a case study in Broadhurst. These notions are not particularly dissected, but are glazed upon. Broadhurst’s dramatizations provide a particular effective closeness to the main focus of the story. Judi Farr plays present day Florence, Felicity Price plays young Florence and Hannah Garbo plays Florence as a child. A narrative series of events sees present day Florence on the morning of her murder, as Farr also provides some narration. This is a throw back to documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, where actors are utilised to clearly show the bigger picture.

Broadhurst’s audacity is evident from the start when a story is told about her the colour of her dress that she wore to the Black and White ball. Suffice to say it was neither black nor white. This story reminded me of a tale I’d heard regarding Bobby Kennedy’s widow, Ethel. Kennedy held a St. Patrick’s Day party whereupon she told each guest to come in black or white. Once the party was underway, she appeared in a bold, green dress. These are flamboyant women who evoke hedonism, high society and opportunism.

Gillian Armstrong has made a solid documentary with Unfolding Florence. It is biographical, mysterious, enigmatic and humourous. The screenplay by Katherine Thomson is perfect is edited to create a comprehensible story while portraying Broadhurst as the true charismatic enigma that she was.

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