Given its suspiciously sycophantic-sounding title, it would be reasonable to expect no more from this documentary tribute to British fashion’s grand dame than a wide-eyed recounting of her greatest achievements. Credit to director Lorna Tucker, then, for deftly subverting expectations from the outset. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist opens with an utterly miserable Vivienne Westwood slumped in a chair, berating the filmmaker for asking her innocuous questions about her past. Cut to the designer on a workplace rampage, hurling abuse at employees for misinterpreting her instructions, and threatening to shut down the label on account of their subpar work.
But once Westwood’s cantankerous side has been firmly established, a more flattering picture begins to emerge. It becomes apparent that her unwillingness to wax lyrical about her formative years stems from an admirable intellectual restlessness. As she reflects on the role she played in defining the aesthetic of punk in the 1970s, she criticizes ex-partner Malcolm McLaren and Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon for resting on their laurels once they’d established themselves as leaders of the movement, while she demonstrably continued to evolve creatively. She’s also laudably sober and unsentimental when assessing punk’s legacy, concluding that “we weren’t attacking the establishment, we were just part of the distraction.”
Tucker’s even-handed approach extends to the depiction of Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s design partner and husband of 26 years. In his talking-head interview, the flamboyant Austrian comes across as rather vacuous, adding credence to rumors that he was the inspiration for the Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle Brüno. But whenever the camera simply observes him at work, his unbridled creativity and childlike affection for his wife shine through.
In sustaining a tone that oscillates between earnest admiration and wry exasperation, Tucker delivers a witty warts-and-all portrait of an endearingly eccentric couple. The film only really falters when dealing with Westwood’s political and environmental activism, with the filmmaker seemingly unwilling to confront the absurdity of an outrageously dressed global fashion mogul railing against climate change and fracking. These scenes are brief, but they nudge the more laudatory final act toward puff-piece territory.
With the whole affair wrapped up in under 80 minutes, the charting of Westwood’s decades-long journey from countercultural rebel to toast of the British establishment feels a little cursory at times. Certainly, Westwood suffers in comparison to the forthcoming McQueen, an altogether more cinematic and substantial celebration of another British fashion luminary. But while its chief pleasures may be skin deep, its director deserves praise for playing her subject’s reticence to the film’s advantage.