CHILLY SCENES OF WINTOUR : David Frankel’s ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ [5/10]

Josef Von Sternberg (The Devil Is A Woman) and Cliff Richard (Devil Woman) notwithstanding, the title of The Devil Wears Prada poses a nagging question. Can 'the devil' – or even 'a devil' actually be female? Surely that's why we have the compound word 'she-devil' in our vocabulary. But the Satanic figure on view here is most definitely of the distaff variety: even if silver-haired, flamboyantly-attired, viper-tongued, fiftysomething fashion-magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is perhaps more de Vil (as in Cruella) than an actual devil – there's never any possibility that she'll turn out to be a diabolic counterpart of Al Pacino's Beelzebub-as-Corporate-Lawyer from The Devil's Advocate.

This means that Hammer horror fans anticipating a belated sequel to the classic 1967 Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out will be in for a major letdown. And they won't be the only ones: The Devil Wears Prada may have ridden warm reviews ("Bright and crisp and funny" – Denby, New Yorker) and much Streep-oriented Oscar buzz to become the most unexpected $100m-grossing blockbuster at the 2006 American box office. But, Streep apart – and it is a terrific turn – this is a decidedly ordinary affair: rather anonymously directed by Sex and the City veteran Frankel (sole previous feature credit: 1995's little-seen Miami Rhapsody) from a script by Aline Brosh McKenna, adapted from Lauren Weisberger's novel.

Weisberger was an assistant to legendary Vogue editor Anna ("Nuclear") Wintour, and her book is a roman a clef with Andrea ('Andy') Sachs the authorial surrogate, Wintour appearing as Priestly, and Vogue becoming Runway. In the movie, Andy (Anne Hathaway) is an attractive, intelligent, earnest, but somewhat frowsy-haired and dowdily-dressed aspiring journalist who dreams of penning socially-conscious pieces on a radical newspaper. Working for Runway might not seem the most logical stepping-stone to such a career, but Miranda – seeking a change from the usual run of 'disappointing' girls – overlooks Andy's glaring unsuitability for the task and (the first and far from the least of the tale's implausible elements) takes her on.

Andy rapidly realises that she's way out of her depth in a job that "a million girls would kill for," and she receives only acidically sniping discouragement from Miranda's longer-serving assistant Emily (Emily Blunt). Things only look up after she swallows her principles and takes sartorial advice from Runway's chief designer Nigel (Stanley Tucci) – but while she's slowly making progress with the imperious, impossibly hard-to-please Miranda (who terminates all conversations with an apparently offhand, but unmistakably brutal "that's all…") Andy starts to neglect her doe-eyed, ordinary-joe boyfriend, trainee chef Nate (Adrian Grenier.)

Aspiring, brunette ingenue… imperious, silver-maned boss… ordinary-joe trainee-chef boyfriend… The basic framework of The Devil Wears Prada will be very familiar to those lucky few who managed to catch Robert Altman's ludicrously-underexposed ballet drama The Company a couple of years back (for Hathaway, Streep and Grenier, read Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell and James Franco.) Altman, of course, got around the hackneyed aspects of his story by pretty much dispensing with narrative altogether. And by the end of Prada you'll be forgiven for wishing Brosh McKenna had done the same, so insipid and predictable are the narrative convolutions which pass for a plot.

The picture is essentially yet another variant on the old Pygmalion, goose-into-swan story, with Hathaway's Andy making an abrupt transition from jumper-clad, klutzy frump to head-turning, super-confident fashion-plate as she desperately tries to obey Runway's anything-but-unspoken codes of dress and coiffure. Smartening up her appearance apparently also involves a loosening of moral fibre – poor old Nate suffers nobly in the background, and the snooty Brit Emily also loses out to Andy's increasingly Machiavellian scheming. Trouble is, we never really believe in either Andy: Hathaway does her appealing best, but she's as unconvincing as a would-be agit-prop muckraker (articles about 'janitor's strikes' indeed) as she is among the air-kissing phonies of the fashion world.

Hathaway made her name in teen-oriented fare like Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries, and The Devil Wears Prada is fundamentally no less cartoonish or fairytale-like. The script strains our credulity at almost every stage, and Frankel mostly opts for a broad comic tone that sits oddly with several of the characters (Streep's patrician Miranda, Blunt's Roedean-ish Emily, Tucci's puckish Nigel) and is also an awkward fit for the supposedly rarefied conjunction of journalism and haute couture which the Runway environment represents. Ironically enough for a film featuring so many rake-thin models, and where Andy agonises her way down from a size six to a size four, The Devil Wears Prada tries to have its cake and eat it as far as fashion is concerned: excoriating its frivolity and superficiality one minute, wallowing in its starry glamour the next (witness a third-act trip to Paris Fashion Week, complete with glassily pointless cameo from veteran designer Valentino.)

Nor does the film say anything much about its rather more intriguing and topical subtext, namely the culture of the American workplace. Miranda's callous hire-em-fire-em approach (and vaguely Thatcherish air) makes her close kin to Donald Trump (or Alan Sugar) from The Apprentice, but rather than question the merits of such a managerial style, in a high-unemployment era when hundreds of thousands of American 'girls' (and indeed 'boys') are in desperate need of any form of gainful employment – Prada prefers to have its protagonist bend over backwards to accommodate Miranda's insanely capricious requests.

Miranda isn't happy of course, or fulfilled – but she is astonishingly successful, taking whatever steps are necessary to protect her public image and her own job-security. The film, typically, doesn't seem to know whether or not this is a good thing: after a brief interlude when, faced with the breakup of her marriage (a stormy union which affords McKenna the opportunity for some rather trite cod-psychology), her mask of steely harshness slips and we see Miranda vulnerable and wounded – sympathy for the 'devil,' perhaps. But the final act rather disappointingly returns her to standard uber-bitch mode: she pulls a particularly devious last-minute Dirty Trick that has unfortunate consequences for Nigel – making him the approximate equivalent of Ray Wise's hapless, tragic Don Hollenbeck from Good Night, and Good Luck.

The stakes aren't anything like so high here, of course (pretty storms in to-die-for teacups) and the picture's belated desire to pull our heartstrings (via both Nigel and Nate) comes across as decidedly incongruous in such a fluffy context. It seems to be a rule that any film seeking to challenge the commonly held view of fashion as a zone of vapid, pretentious froth must itself be vapid and frothy – but even within the sub-genre's limitations, The Devil Wears Prada falls down on the basic details.

There's no excusing the wildly overelaborate creations which are lazily passed off as the latest a la mode outfits here – a cluttered riot of bangles and beads that would surely be rejected as OTT by the costume-designers reponsible for the alien races on Doctor Who (there's also something distractingly and unsuitably fuzzy about the cinematography and lighting.) But despite the picture's glaring demerits, the actors do enough to somehow keep it all afloat: while Tucci, Blunt and Hathaway have their moments, the picture really is, as even the harshest critics agree, all about Streep. She's on sufficiently blazing form that she keeps The Devil Wears Prada watchable even as it spins out its flimsy material beyond the 100-minute mark. It's a spellbinding performance in a distinctly unremarkable film… that's all.

Neil Young
2nd/3rd October, 2006

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA : [5/10] : USA 2006 : David FRANKEL : 109 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Sunderland (UK), 1st October 2006 – public show (preview; paid  £5.50)