In this roaringly comic and powerfully affecting road movie, Terence Stamp gives one of the year’s best performances. The British actor plays Bernadette, an aging transsexual traveling through Australia’s red desert with two younger drag queens, Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce), on a streetcar named desire. It’s actually a bus named Priscilla, though Blanche in the Tennessee Williams play would recognize Bernadette’s dependence on illusion and the kindness of strangers. Those are hard needs to fill in a place where most blokes don’t thrill to a close encounter with men who lip-sync to disco hits in heels, glitter frocks and padded bras.
Once the toast of several continents, Bernadette is joining her friends on a grinding two-week bus trek to Alice Springs for a come-down gig. Writer and director Stephan Elliott doesn’t ignore the bitchy fun inherent in the material. But he digs deeper, too. Mitzi has a wife and son stashed in Alice Springs, and Felicia knows just how to needle him about it. Weaving and Pearce are both splendid, but the film belongs to Stamp. In the rough towns, when the others wisely dress butch to avoid being insulted or beaten, Bernadette won’t surrender her femininity. Stamp gives her a caustic wit and a touchingly beleaguered grace. There’s not an ounce of flaming camp in the romance between Bernadette and Bob, the gentleman caller superbly played by Bill Hunter. It’s the unspoken connections that give the wild and raunchy Priscilla a direct line to the heart.