Review: ‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,’ a Portrait in Brief

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How do you make a documentary about someone who’s happy to be on camera but doesn’t want to talk about herself — or at least says she doesn’t? In “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” the director Lorna Tucker shrewdly lets her subject, the British designer Vivienne Westwood, profess resistance to this movie early. “I think what you’ll have to let me do,” Ms. Westwood says right as it opens, “is just let me talk, just get it over with.” Wearing an indigo blue dress while posing and pouting on a mauve velvet armchair, she sighs. “I will get into it, but it’s so boring.”

There are many words that you can use to describe Ms. Westwood (born 1941), an early punk rock tastemaker and merchandiser turned global couture brand. Boring certainly is not one of them. And as the movie jumps from past to present, from street to palace, from the Sex Pistols to Queen Elizabeth II, Ms. Westwood’s claim sounds increasingly strange and borderline ridiculous. It also starts to seem like a schtick, and a familiar one. Consider that the 2014 book “Vivienne Westwood,” a memoir that she wrote with Ian Kelly, opens on a similarly, equally dubious note of resistance: “Don’t talk to me now, Ian, I’m really, really busy.”

Maybe Ms. Westwood was just being a punk and embracing the anarchic ethos with which she has long been identified. The documentary revisits some of that movement’s early history, its music and its stylised belligerence, though there’s only so much it can cram into 80 minutes as it follows Ms. Westwood across the decades and through her manifold transformations. In 1965, she met Malcolm McLaren, when he was an art student and she was a young single mother. They became a couple and had a son, Joe Corré, who went on to help found the lingerie company Agent Provocateur and appears in the movie as one of its closest observers.

By 1971, Ms. Westwood and Mr. McLaren were selling records, clothes and ephemera in a store, Let It Rock, on King’s Road in London. It went through various iterations, as did its creators. Enter the Sex Pistols, controversy, success, failure and more success, a trajectory that Ms. Tucker entertainingly illustrates with a rush of talking heads and colourful archival material. After selling punk, Ms. Westwood turned to fashion. She was laughed at, and she laughed back, all the way to Lloyds. In 1980s, her company almost went bankrupt. In 1992, the queen gave Ms. Westwood the Order of the British Empire. She wore a smart hat, a gorgeous skirt suit and no panties.

Ms. Westwood embraced high fashion boldly, at times thrillingly, often by pilfering and deconstructing British history. Mr. McLaren, she says, grew jealous. She soon outran him and would outlast him. (He died in 2010.) “I got intellectually bored with Malcolm,” Ms. Westwood says, a shattering post-mortem. She can be as off-putting and frustrating as she is fascinating. She asserts that “we invented punk” (tell it to Patti Smith, Richard Hell, etc.) but brushes past the Sex Pistols. She may understandably want to keep the focus on her own legacy, which remains tethered to a past that gives the movie its funniest, most sly bit: a white-gloved museum curator contextualising a Westwood-McLaren shirt festooned with a swastika, straitjacket clasps and Sex Pistols lyrics.

As this portrait takes shape, Ms. Westwood — now a Dame — is often seen working, though much of the actual designing is now done by her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. (These days, she’s keener on environmental activism.) Mr. Kronthaler seems happy to remain in her shadow — maybe. Much remains unexplained and underexplored, including her relationship with her company’s chief executive, Carlo D’Amario, whom she seems to criticise. In a blog post this week, Ms. Westwood wrote, “For the latter half of my career in fashion I’ve hated my company.” So, who knows? In the memoir, Mr. Kelly explained that “Setting the record straight has proved to be an elusive task, even for her, and she was there.” Ms. Tucker certainly deserves credit for trying.

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