Ever since The Full Monty exposed American audiences to the tale of unemployed working-class Brits who redeemed their lives by showing off their naughty bits, there's been a market here for feel-good English comedies with just a pinch of wholesome cheekiness. The same producers who brought us Calendar Girls, about a group of Yorkshire women "of a certain age" who pose for a nude calendar, now unveil Kinky Boots, inspired by the true story of a failing Northampton shoe factory's immersion into the world of London drag performers. It's cheerful, predictable and far from edgy, but buoyed by a likable cast and a standout performance by the versatile Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Aussie actor Joel Edgerton (Ned Kelly) plays Charlie Price, an ambitious young man who dreams of a career in marketing but finds himself saddled with the family shoe business after the death of his father. Charlie discovers that the factory, which has always prided itself on its craftsmanship, is on the cusp of bankruptcy and that he has no choice but to enforce drastic layoffs. Or does he? One feisty employee, Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), suggests the launch of a new product line, a niche beyond the factory's tradition of sturdy men's shoes.
Charlie finds his inspiration during a visit to London, when he attempts to rescue a tall black woman from harassers. That woman turns out to be a man named Simon (Ejiofor), who stars as a chanteuse named Lola in a London drag club. Charlie soon has the revelation that Lola's gaudy high-heeled boots aren't designed for a man's foot, and that there may actually be a market for well-crafted costume boots for drag performers. Though that would seem an especially limited niche, Charlie sets about designing a new line of "kinky boots," with guidance from his unlikely new associate, Lola.
Needless to say, the script by Tim Firth (Calendar Girls) and Geoff Deane finds easy opportunities for cross-cultural comedy when Lola shows up at the Northampton factory in full attention-grabbing drag. There's particular tension between Lola and homophobic worker Don (Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead), which climaxes in an arm-wrestling contest and some lessons on what it really means to be a man. Charlie's project, meanwhile, is frowned upon by his upscale fiancée Nicola (Jemima Rooper), who has some calculating plans of her own for the old factory. Growing friction between Charlie and Lola also jeopardizes their grand scheme to win publicity for the new line of boots at a Milan fashion show.
On the surface, Kinky Boots means well with its scenes of Midlands factory employees accepting and working alongside the diva-like Lola. But the film shies away from any real analysis of who Lola/Simon is. An opening flashback reveals a young boy who enjoys dressing as a girl being rejected by a stern father, and Lola at one point confesses, "Put on a frock and I can sing 'Stand by Your Man' in front of 500 strangers. Put on a pair of jeans and I can't even say hello." Clearly, drag empowers the fabulous Lola, but the movie is too timid to explore her true desires, sexuality and gender identity.
The timidity of out-of-drag Simon is also hard to accept because Ejiofor makes such a dynamic and charismatic drag queen. The Nigerian-British actor, so powerful in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things and suave in Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, energizes this little movie, turning Lola into a fierce, magnetic presence, both onstage and off. Edgerton complements Ejiofor's force of nature with a nicely underplayed, hangdog comic performance (complete with his own woeful drag act in the finale). Potts is charming as the outspoken worker who becomes Charlie's inevitable love interest, a smart alternative to his shrewish fiancée.
The film is crisply directed by Julian Jarrold (White Teeth), with atmospheric sequences in the shoe factory that illustrate just how much care goes into a well-made article of clothing. The milieu of Northampton feels right, as does the slightly tacky club where Lola's star shines bright. Kinky Boots doesn't kick away any stereotypes, but it's a generally comfortable fit.