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Swan Song review – a warmhearted but slight tribute to Udo Kier

The legendary character actor plays a retired gay icon in a gently melancholy film that is elevated by one genuinely sublime scene

After a decades-long career as a magnificent character actor, Udo Kier finally gets the star entrance he deserves in Todd Stephens’s Swan Song, bursting onto the screen in the first scene from behind a velvet curtain, decked out in jewellery and announcing himself as “Mr. Pat.” It’s a great introduction to the warm and flamboyant character that grants Kier his first true leading role in a breezy, unchallenging film that acts as a celebration of not only Kier, but also of the man he plays.

This “Mr. Pat” is local gay icon Pat Pitsenberger, a retired but still well-regarded hairdresser in the town of Sandusky, Ohio – based on a similar real-life figure from writer-director Stephens’s own home town. Shut up in a lifeless retirement home, Pat is given a break from sneaking cigarettes and generally trying to stay sane by an offer of employment; he has to head back into town to do the hair and makeup for the corpse of his former favourite client Rita Parker Sloan, whose funeral is looming.

What follows is Pat’s slow walk to the funeral home on the other side of town, his journey full of reminiscences and shopping trips to find just the right beauty products for renowned perfectionist Rita. Both frail and fabulous, Pat is a great role for Kier, who gets plenty of laughs and pathos as he visits his old haunts and tries to come to terms with a world that seems to have left him behind.

Focused so tightly on the character of Pat as it is, Swan Song leaves itself only limited time for any actual drama, and a lot of the film – particularly in the first half – moves rather slowly, peppered with repetitive, and often over-stylised, flashbacks. It often falls to Kier alone to keep these moments engaging, but he mostly succeeds, his mournful register made all the more affecting by its relative unfamiliarity – a lot of audiences will mostly know Kier for his unnerving villainous supporting roles.

It’s in this mourning that Swan Song as a whole is strongest, Stephens paying his heartfelt respects to Pat and his former milieu. There’s a really affecting pining for the old gay world that you don’t see expressed often in modern films, the notion that the immense progress made around LGBT rights and inclusion in society at large has also robbed queer people of their own unique identities and spaces.

It’s a thorny issue that’s delicately handled and culminates in easily the film’s best scene as Pat dances to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” at the closing night of the Sandusky drag bar that he helped open decades before. Joyful and sad, it’s a lovely moment of colour and movement, all set to a truly great and iconic queer song.

It’s a pity that the rest of the film can’t match this energy, especially the ending, which feels like it’s about to get genuinely poignant before cutting off into an anticlimax, but the moment is pretty much worth the price of admission alone. Kier’s career has been, somehow, both legendary and underappreciated, a strange contradiction to which this film and role pay a touching, very occasionally sublime, tribute.

Swan Song is now showing in UK cinemas.

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