Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst, 82 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas on 24 August 2006.

(This review originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal).


Flamboyant wallpaper designer Florence Broadhurst was born in Mt Perry, Queensland in 1899, and was murdered in Paddington, Sydney in 1977. In between, as the subtitle of this feature-length documentary says, she lived many lives. Her murder has never been solved.

Florence, a farmer’s daughter, toured South-East Asia as a dancer, and then set up an Arts Academy in Shanghai in the 1920s. Living in London in the early 1930s, she had married Percy Kahn (a shadowy figure) and reinvented herself as Madame Pellier, Bond Street dress salon owner. However, she soon found herself in court, sued by her previous employer, the noted fashion house of Corot, accused of purloining its client list and borrowing some of its dress designs.

Losing that case – and her first husband – Florence promptly acquired a new husband, an aristocrat named Leonard Lloyd Lewis, and had a son. After a number of financial setbacks, the family returned to Australia in 1949, where Florence styled herself as a noted ‘English’ watercolour painter, and became prominent on the Sydney charity social scene. In 1959 she began what became a very successful wallpaper manufacturing business. Her bold wallpaper and textile designs had their hey-day in the 1960s and 70s, then fell out of favour for a while. But today they are in huge demand once again, this time internationally.

This biographical documentary, directed by Gillian Armstrong and written by Katherine Thomson, started life as a made-for TV film. But like Florence, it outgrew its humble origins, and became a full length feature. Director Armstrong is well-known for her fiction films (such as Oscar and Lucinda, 1997). She has also directed several popular documentaries (such as Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces, 1988).

The film makers say they wanted to tell Florence’s story in a bold, inventive way, in keeping with Florence’s unique personality and style. So when writer Thomson realised they had little archival material on Florence’s life, she and director Armstrong settled on the idea of animating the photographs and documents.

The animation style is jocular, in a Terry Gilliam-Monty Python style. While it does make the material come to life, it can also tend toward the irritating. There are framed quotations from Florence, but whether these are real or scripted, it is hard to tell. These tricks are apt to dilute the value of the fascinating archival material the film makers have uncovered.

Another technique used to fill in the story’s gaps is re-enactment. This is surprisingly effective. Armstrong uses 3 actresses to portray Florence as a child, a young woman and an older woman (Hannah Garbo, Felicity Price and Judi Farr). Re-enactments can often be “cheesy”, but these are wonderful. They focus on Florence’s strong sense of personal style, using many of her vibrant wallpaper designs as backdrops, thus filling out our picture of Florence and her artistic style.

Some fascinating interviews are conducted in a fairly conventional style, but subjects again appear against a background of brilliantly colourful and inventive wallpaper. We hear from various Sydney celebrities, designers and socialites. And some of Florence’s ex-employees speak movingly about this often domineering woman.

All this is punctated by scenes of Florence taking her last walk on the day of her death, through Sydney’s eastern suburbs, towards her factory. She tells us she would never have taken the walk if she’d realised she was on her way to her own particularly vicious murder.

But there’s the problem. We never do find out who murdered her. How could we? The police don’t know. Yet the question hangs in the air. We are given a few hints. Florence may have invested money with a company associated with dodgy tax schemes. Perhaps her death was related to these investments? Perhaps there was a disgruntled ex-employee? I understand that the police had around 15 suspects, but the film does not tell us who they were. The film does not even lean towards a theory, which makes it something of a frustrating experience if you see this as a true crime film. But of course it is much more than that. It is a lively and colourful portrait of a truly remarkable Australian artist and businesswoman.

For those keen to know more about Florence Broadhurst, there are two recent book-form biographies: Siobhan O'Brien's A Life by Design, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004, and Helen O'Neill’s Florence Broadhurst, Hardie Grant, Melbourne, 2006.