I was prepared for the audacious humor and gaudy sumptuousness of the adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: You don’t do a movie about two drag queens and a transsexual traveling in an old school bus halfway across Australia without loading on the sequins and making cinematic use of the awesome outback. But I wasn’t prepared for the generosity and gorgeousness with which Aussie writer-director Stephan Elliott (and costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel) turn this most unlikely road picture into something arresting — if a tad sentimental — in its naive vision of a perfectly tolerant world.
I also didn’t expect to be so moved by Terence Stamp, a long way from ”The Collector” and regal as the transsexual, Bernadette. Stamp’s performance, so bold in its seriousness and delicacy, is a good foil for the antics of the two younger members of the party: Mitzi (Hugo Weaving), on a journey to meet some important people from his past, and Felicia (Guy Pearce), a pretty, bitchy young performer. In keeping with the genre, the trio have Big Adventures on and off the bus (Priscilla is the name of the vehicle), accompanied by the boom-boom sounds of ABBA and other ’70s disco phenoms. The highlight of this mad production is a full-war-paint performance of Gloria Gaynor’s ”I Will Survive,” staged in the desert for the benefit of Aborigines who may not know what hit them, but who sure know what they like.