Notorious

Film Gretchen Mol is one those actresses that buzzes around Hollywood doing good work in supporting roles without actually catching fire. For years Empire Magazine has included her in their 'Next Big Thing' photo shoots and she appears on film posters standing next to everyone from Matt Damon to Rachel Weisz as they head off into the stratosphere. In a recent interview she said she was happy just to find one or two good roles a year. Hopefully The Notorious Bettie Page will be her star maker and she'll find much more than that. It's a plum role (if you pardon the expression) and she plays with great expression and passion, and importantly, naturalism.

The film takes a quasi-biographical approach to the subject, supplying enough back story for audiences to understand that the pre-modelling Betty Page was wronged by men -- her father, her husband, random strangers -- but falls short of saying that this was the rational for her profession. From there the plot focuses on the most important moments of her career and the gentle slip from fairly tame cover shots, to nudity to bondage carefully mapping out the impression that as far as Page was concerned they were just jobs -- it was the rest of the world that saw them as distinct and separate worlds expressing the dark corners of man's desires.

Although Mol's is a towering and compelling performance, she's ably helped by an impressive guest cast that includes the ever dependable Lili Taylor as a photographer and David Strathairn as the judge presiding over the case of whether images of Page are obscene in a part that almost feels like the evil twin brother of Ed Morrow. The film is chock full of underated actors who like Mol have been appearing in films and television for years without really getting the nod; Joss Whedon favourite Jonathan M. Woodward (he was the man with the message in the Firefly episode The Message), John Cullum, who played Holling in Northern Exposure, and Sarah Paulson familiar from American Gothic and Deadwood are all in there in larger and smaller roles, providing the perfect landscape to Paige's story.

Perhaps for budgetary reasons, director Mary Harron follows George Clooney's lead from Good Night and Good Luck in presenting the story in quite simple terms, much of it appearing in crisp black and white. Contemporary establishing stock footage is intercut with interior shots, emphasising the artificial, but not with the kitschiness that could so easily have unbalanced the film and sent it into camp territory. The expected montage sequences of Page on the page also cut back on men buying the magazines furtively and instead emphasise the beauty and lustre of the photography. The first infusion of colour is during one such montage in its breathtaking. Colour in the film seems to be expressing Paige's inner self, only bursting forth when she's not being contrained by outside forces. Was Paige really unaware of the effects that he photographs were having on men? The infusion of spirituality near the climax suggests that she did, but cleverly the film is careful not to make an argument either way. It's really up to the audience to decide, but the evidence is all here to make a constructive argument either way.

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