Accessories have a monopoly on magic powers (Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, the mask in The Mask). But you don’t need to be Edith Head, costume-designer extraordinaire during Hollywood’s Golden Age, to know that wardrobe can weave its own spell. A dress in “artery red” proves to be malevolent in Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, causing everything from washing machine malfunctions to dog attacks. In François Ozon’s wondrous short A Summer Dress, a crimson-and-blue floral number inflames the desire of a teenage boy who has no choice but to wear it when his clothes are stolen.
The garment in Pretty Red Dress, a confident feature-length debut from the writer-director Dionne Edwards, contains elements of both the erotic and the supernatural. A close-up of the dinky little dress hanging on the back of a bedroom door is accompanied by a cymbal hiss – a kind of sonic shimmer to match the sparkle of those glittery sequins and glassy beads. Travis (Natey Jones) peers almost fearfully from beneath the duvet as the camera creeps towards the object of his attention. The effect is straight out of a horror film: the fabric seems to be staring back at him.
Recently released from prison, Travis lives in south London with Candice (Alexandra Burke) and their teenage daughter, Kenisha (Temilola Olatunbosun). Candice works on a supermarket checkout but dreams of becoming a singer. Her framed Motown posters line every wall of their flat, and it’s her upcoming audition to play Tina Turner that prompts Travis to splash out on the glamorous gift in the first place.
(She performs “Proud Mary”, which Burke previously jived to in a pretty silver dress on Strictly Come Dancing.) Not that there isn’t something in it for Travis. While everyone else is out, he steps gingerly into the dress in his white-socked feet, electronic ankle tag and all, then reaches for Candice’s lipstick. At no point does he ditch the beard: it’s part of the ensemble that expresses who he is.
Candice inevitably discovers him in her frock but the revelation plays out in unusual ways for both. Jones, richly legible here in his first lead role, portrays Travis cycling through a variety of excuses, as though he were trying on different shades of lippy. First, he says he was high. Then that it was just a “lickle prank”. As he sheepishly returns the dress to its place among Candice’s other clothes, the camera lurks behind the hangers looking out at him – a visual pun that puts the audience in the closet.
The conventional danger in any post-prison narrative is recidivism, as hinted at by Travis’s demurral when his old friends embrace him: “Tryna keep it narrow,” he says. Narrow maybe, but hardly straight. Even before he wriggles into the dress, he and Candice are pushing boundaries in bed. “Who’s my little bitch?” she purrs, providing the first of three instances in which that word is directed at a member of this family. “Turn… I wanna see it… more.” The camera stays fixed on her as she makes her demands, leaving us to imagine the rest. Hotter that way.
Edwards’s sensual touch was already evident in her 2016 short We Love Moses, which considered masculinity and sexual fluidity through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. What’s impressive about the new film is how evenly she distributes its dramatic weight while balancing domestic interiority with razzle-dazzle visuals in a way not typical of recent British cinema. Travis’s story is a hook on which the rest of the movie hangs, but Edwards never pretends that his liberation comes without its hazards. Equal emphasis is given to Kenisha, who wonders if her father is “off key” before conceding that she knows how that feels; and to Candice, who is also trying to make her inner and outer selves cohere. Burke’s often exasperated line-readings epitomise one of the joys of her performance: even at the end of her tether, she never exhausts her love.
It’s mildly baffling that we get only the briefest introduction to Travis’s mother, who is shown in passing at a family shindig, especially since we learn that she defended his childhood preferences in the dressing-up box. In all other areas, though, Edwards’s needlework is divinely detailed. By the end of the film, Travis is strutting along a busy street, the dress fastened at the back for the first time rather than hanging loose. He’s found his visibility cloak.
“Pretty Red Dress” is in cinemas now.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out