2001 • 94 minutes • Miramax Pictures
Even if you haven’t seen Blow Dry, you have seen Blow Dry.
There’s a certain kind of crowd-pleasing British comedy that gets a fresh coat of paint every year or so, although its chummy innards remain largely the same. There’s family drama. There’s a culture clash between the salt of the earth working class folk and the slightly effete, intellectual urbanites. There’s often a performance or contest or other competitive scheme that serves as a built-in climax for the story. And thanks to the limited acting pool of Great Britain (which is a comment on the size of the nations therein, not their talents), a lot of the same actors crop up in them. The scope changes, according to the budget of the film and the ambitions of the director. The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, About Time… all of these have more money and ambition than the itty bitty Blow Dry.
The third entrant in an unintended trilogy of British hair films in the late nineties and early aughts—the first two being The Big Tease (starring television’s Craig Ferguson) and An Everlasting Piece—Blow Dry is about the British Hairdressing Championships descending on the small English village of Keighley. The only overlap between the oncoming hordes of hair professionals and the earthy villagers are the Allens. Phil (Alan Rickman), once a competitive hair stylist himself, is now a barber, although his son Brian (Josh Hartnett) has inherited his prowess. Shelley (Natasha Richardson), once Phil’s wife and co-stylist, now operates a competing salon with her lover, Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), who was previously Phil and Shelley’s model in said competitions. When Shelley receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, she hides it from Sandra and instead attempts to tie up loose ends by reaching out to her estranged ex-husband to see if he and their son will compete with them in the Hairdressing Championships.
After some resistance, Phil and Brian accept, and you can largely fill in the plot details from there. The two sides of the family push and pull as Shelley’s lies are revealed, the competition heats up, and Brian falls for the American daughter of Bill Nighy’s crooked but fabulously coiffed stylist. (“Remind me to tinsel my hair for Christmas,” I told Captain Cinema, who threw this my way.) It’s almost aggressive in its determination to please without imposition, from the soundtrack of classic hits to a sassy elderly woman to giving a film that already has an antagonist another antagonist. (Cancer is never the protagonist, unless you’re adapting The Emperor of All Maladies to film.) It may be fuzzy on some of the practical details of hairdressing—a supposedly experienced colorist leaves color on some practice heads overnight to horrific results, at which point I clutched my own much-colored head in horror—but it certainly won’t be stopped by them.
But Blow Dry has two things to recommend it. Firstly, despite being released in 2001, it’s an unintentional time capsule of the late nineties, from Josh Hartnett (sporting a slightly strained but decent accent) and Rachel Leigh Cook even being in it to the slightly cartoonish production values. (Shelley and Sandra’s salon, A Cut Above, particularly looks like it was cobbled together out of sets from Rocko’s Modern Life. Or was this an actual thing in the nineties that I didn’t see because my mother very wisely did not let me off of my leash for an instant?)
Secondly, and much more importantly, this is the rare film that I’ve seen, especially from this era, that features a queer character whose story is in no way about being queer. (It’s an ensemble, but Shelley is a pretty strong candidate for protagonist.) Shelley’s sexual orientation is never labeled, mentioned, or otherwise discussed; the more pressing conflict between Shelley and Phil is that she and Sandra ran away together the night before the competition, abandoning Phil and, one assumes, a very young Brian. No one in their town has an issue with them, and the film even lets them be playfully flirty with each other, like an actual couple. (“Huh,” Sandra says at one point, eying a bottle of champagne. “Says it’s better enjoyed in bed.” Smooth.) The only time their status as a same-sex couple is brought up, it’s obliquely, when Sandra is crushed that Shelley would tell her ex-husband and her son about her relapse before her. Without any legal standing in the family, Sandra’s insecure about her place in Shelley’s life, but it wouldn’t be a feel-good movie without the Allens walking off into the sunset, hand in hand in hand in hand.
Given the amount of these kinds of films that I watched as a child, given my mother’s rampant (and contagious, see yours truly) Anglophilia, seeing such a remarkable piece of representation in such a by the numbers genre is touching. If your cinematic needs require a crowd-pleasing British comedy, you could certainly do worse.
I watched this film on Netflix.