Lewis Gilbert | 104 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
Lewis Gilbert is the director of You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Alfie, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine — eclectic is an understatement! Here he works more in line with the latter two, telling the tale of a small amateur dance glass, mostly populated by middle-aged women, trained by a former big-stage wannabe (Liza Minnelli), who are invited to perform at a large local dance revue.
Adapted from his own play by Richard Harris (not that one), it’s easy to imagine how this had theatrical origins: it’s all about performance and the stage, for one thing, and there’s a focus on character and dialogues that feels vaguely stage-derived. Which is in no way to say they’ve failed in translating it to the screen — if you didn’t know its roots, I don’t think you’d be tempted to guess. The action is expanded, with many scenes taking place outside of the group’s rehearsal room (where I believe the entirety of the play took place), and Lewis knows his way behind a camera, so we’re not stuck with stagey blocking.
Obviously the film has an overarching plot, but it’s not really where the focus lies; it’s more an occasionally-vague long-term goal, the preparations for which are spotlighted in a couple of rehearsal scenes. Though Minnelli is ostensibly the star and lead, many of the others are given a not-unfair chunk of screen time too. So with a moderately large cast and the throughline almost a subplot itself, the film occasionally feels like a collection of subplots bolted together. It’s a form that can work, and here it passes well enough.
The standout from the cast is probably Julie Walters, in a relatively early big-screen role. Considering how well-known she is now she seems quite lowly billed and little-featured, but bearing in mind this is a US production from the early ’90s, it’s less surprising. She’s very good (isn’t she always?) as the group’s newest member, a posh English lady who sticks her oar in and is a bit too blunt with her comments. I seem to remember her generating most of the laughs in this comedy-drama, although that’s not to disparage anyone else’s work.
Stepping Out is what some people would call a Woman’s Film, exactly as patronisingly as that sounds. It’s not entirely female — there’s a male member of the group (though one might argue he’s a little camp), and a git of a boyfriend — but, without meaning to come over as patronising myself, you can tell they were aiming for a female audience. Which doesn’t mean men can’t enjoy it, obviously.
For either gender, I think it remains a fairly lightweight but entertaining little tale. It’s not likely to illuminate you in any way, or make you roar with laughter, and it’s not even a shining light in the group-of-underdogs-who-think-they-can’t-prove-they-can sub-genre, but it’s a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours for those who like this kind of thing.