It’s a credit to veteran Australian director Gillian Armstrong that her new documentary has found an audience. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives Of Florence Broadhurst, to give it its full title, was accepted for screening in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has been a modest box office success in Sydney art houses, helped along by some astute marketing.
This isn’t to say it’s very good. If it was screening on SBS, which is more its natural medium than the big cinema screen, you might find yourself dozing off in front of the TV. Despite Florence Broadhurst’s life having a certain fascination, the movie lacks narrative drive, bogging down in period detail and respectful interviews with local celebrities.
Broadhurst was a country girl from Mt Perry, Queensland -“ if you have to ask where that is, well, that’s the point. She reinvented herself, first as a nightclub entertainer in 1920s Shanghai, later in London both in the fashion scene and upper social circles, finally in Sydney where her fortunes fluctuated until she found a niche with her successful wallpaper business. Then she was murdered by a mysterious assailant.
The film offers enough hints for us to draw the conclusion she was not a nice person. She led a life of deception, desperate for acceptance in social circles with dubious social values, willing to use other people’s money and influence to get ahead. Yet here is Gillian Armstrong trotting out a cast of willing interview subjects, Maggie Tabberer among them, singing her praises. There’s an overwhelming feeling Armstrong is walking a fine line, playing down Broadhurst’s seedier side to secure the cooperation of some key interviewees.
The best scenes feature the more critical interviews. The bemusement of the organising committee of Sydney’s annual Black and White Charity Ball, who invited her to join them, discovered her dubious background, and were scandalised when she wore a red dress to their strictly monochrome event, raises a smile. Broadhurst’s only son is openly resentful at a lifetime of her parental neglect. Best of all is the dignified discretion of the foreman from her father’s rural property, obviously under no illusions about what was going on in the family of his employer.
Finally, a sound bite from Sydney fashion star Akira Isogawa attests to the quality of the wallpaper patterns that bore Broadhurst’s name -“ he uses them for the fabrics of his gowns. She knew good designs when she saw them, and knew how to market them. She was a bit more hit-and-miss at promoting herself, and the person who bludgeoned her to death would probably agree to that.