Sheffield DocFest film review: Maisie
Matthew Turner | On 13, Jun 2021
Director: Lee Cooper
Cast: David Raven, Walter Cole, Allen Cardew, Jason Sutton, Dave Lynn, Paul O’Grady
Where to watch Maisie online in the UK: Sheffield DocFest 2021
Maisie is streaming as part of Sheffield DocFest – find out more about the festival here.
Lee Cooper’s affectionate documentary spends time in the company of British drag artist David Raven, who’s been the queen of the British drag scene for over 50 years, performing as Maisie Trollette. With his 85th birthday looming, David is approached by Walter Cole (aka Darcelle XV), who, at 87, is the world’s oldest drag performer. Seeking a publicity opportunity, he flies in from Portland and the pair make plans to perform together, but they don’t exactly click with each other and the resulting meetings are supremely awkward.
For the rest of the film, Cooper’s camera pretty much just hangs out with David, occasionally asking questions. We see him gardening, rehearsing with devoted friends Miss Jason (Jason Sutton) and Dave Lynn, and being helped around the house by infinitely patient friend/carer Allen Cardew.
A brief glimpse of Alzheimer’s medication suggests David is battling the onset of dementia, although the film pointedly chooses not to pursue this, denying us the potentially fascinating exploration of how the disease affects both David and, by extension, Maisie. (A caption at the end states that Maisie is still performing and has never forgotten her songs on stage, suggesting that perhaps the disease had more focus in an earlier cut.)
Throughout the film, we learn a few key details about David’s life, such as the fact that his beloved life partner, Don, died of AIDS and that he’s considered a source of inspiration to fellow drag queens because of everything he went through when homosexuality was illegal. However, David himself isn’t all that forthcoming, so it’s left to off-screen voices, including Miss Jason and Dave Lynn, to add powerful statements, such as the fact that David still won’t ask for directions to a gay club on the street, because the fear of retaliation is so ingrained, or the fact that Maisie essentially saved David, something the film doesn’t really manage to show us on its own.
The documentary is more successful in its observational scenes, particularly in the excruciating meeting between David and Walter. The film notes that the American drag style is derived from beauty pageantry, whereas the British style is more in the saucy postcard, end-of-the-pier pantomime tradition – but it’s not just the drag styles that clash, as the resulting dual performance is just as awkward, their on-stage sniping clearly more than just an agreed-upon act for the audience’s benefit.
The best sequence in the film comes just before the gig, as Cooper cuts between David and Walter as they “get their slap on” before they go on stage, both needing help to squeeze into their tight outfits (Allen helps David, Walter’s daughter is on hand in the other dressing room) and both putting on ridiculously garish make-up. It’s simultaneously funny and tender, and you can’t help but admire both men for allowing Cooper to see how the sausage is made, so to speak.
There is one other revealing moment, where a bemused Brighton barman, who clearly doesn’t share the rest of the film’s reverence for David, muses that he doesn’t get many gigs these days (at his venue, anyway) and even when he does, he only does “boring” old songs and, frankly, isn’t very good anyway.
While the film is consistently watchable, there’s a strong sense of a much more powerful, more informative and more emotional film lurking just under the surface. In the end, it’s hard to shake the idea that the filmmakers were arguably too close to the subject, as this is ultimately an affectionate tribute and more of a frustratingly shallow snapshot than an in-depth profile.
Maisie is streaming at DocFest 2021 until 2.15pm on Monday 14th June.