So far, I’ve read only four worthwhile reviews of The Devil Wears Prada, the best one by William Park in MercatorNet, the second by art historian Sarah Phelps Smith, the third by David Denby in The New Yorker, and the fourth by Roger Ebert on the Net. But even these reviewers were guilty of sins of commission and omission. If ever the truism about art reading us were cautionary, it’s in relation to this brilliant film. I haven’t read the book. Time is too short. It helps, when you see the movie, to be New York Jewish or to have lived in New York City for some months, as was demonstrated by the slim blonde sweeper (Briony) with whom I spoke while watching all the credits after everyone else had left Greater Union. She told me, in response to a question, that she’d give it 15 out of 10. Contrary to what almost every Australian reviewer has said, Meryl Streep’s brilliance as the guru of the fashion industry and the magazine Runaway, allegedly camouflaging a thin story, is not the only real drawcard.
I would give Prada the same rating that Briony gave it, with the proviso that it is only for mature viewers. The PG rating is absurdly unsuitable and presumably was bestowed because there was no foul language, violence, or free frontal nudity. This misled some parents to send their 11-year-old daughters by themselves. Lots would have gone over their heads, and they’d have understood the more hyperbolic forms of nastiness immortalised by Streep. But they should not have been there.
Cohabiting, we all know, is de rigueur today with secular young people, including many with very decent impulses, like the young heroine, Andrea (Anne Hathaway), and her generous boyfriend, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), an apprentice cook. The idea, widely held today, that one-night stands are not a good thing but committed serial monogamy is fine, is not called into question at any stage. This is realistic, but a worry for those of us who do not embrace the concept’s underlying assumption.
In Dante’s Inferno, lust is a grave sin — but it is the least grave of the seven Deadly Sins. Why? For two major reasons. It is more warm-hearted; and, in the case of his famous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, who are adulterous, it is enacted in a way that cannot be denied. It’s not simply “in the mind”, and they are caught at it. Their eternal punishment is interminable buffeting by the wind.
The worst sin in Dante is pride. Then comes envy, anger (violent in its most terrifying forms), avarice, sloth (spiritual laziness being the scariest), and gluttony. The worst sinner in recorded history, in this poem, is the traitor Judas. All of the worst sinners are permanently encased in ice.
In director David Frankel’s first film, pride, envy (signalled especially by cunning put-downs), avarice, and sloth are centrally important. Getting ahead on vocational terrain in morally sound ways, as Nate rightly wants to do, is shown to be one thing. But exploiting others mercilessly, and of course mendaciously, to climb hierarchical ladders or to remain at their helm is something else. On contemporary forms of doing others in, and then denying to oneself and to those in influential positions that one has done anything wrong, Prada is a knife edge.
Streep the working woman is appallingly icy — though she has moments of warmth that make her character entirely, and frighteningly, credible. There are numerous versions of her cold type in this film: male and female. They all refuse to change, opting for prestige, glamour, money, and position — especially, the pleasure of running the show and being accountable to nobody for many of their most ignoble actions. Transparency, to them, is anathema. In brushes with individuals which are not witnessed, they implement hidden agendas worthy of street gangs.
Vaulting ambition, as the author of Macbeth understood too well for his own good, is generic. It is anchored in delusion. Its usual signs, perfectly dramatised by Miranda Priestly and her most diabolical colleagues, are grotesque self-centredness, a love of power and control over others, blind insensitivity to the ordinary human suffering under one’s nose, hypocrisy, and above all treachery.
Thus the movie is an instructive warning for many professional people and those in professional training: doctors, lawyers, psychologists, teachers, and senior management in diverse settings. Benighted self-interest, lodged in a bizarre work ethic, is ruthlessly shown to be exactly what it is: hideous.
Although it is the fashion industry that is satirised at the same time that its genuine, splendidly seductive, attractions bombard the viewing audience, the movie as a whole — as Park understood perfectly — is about salvation. Either you sell your soul or you don’t. If you have sold it, as Andrea sells her soul (“I’ve had no choice”) for the greater part of the film in a wholly credible way, to the intense dismay of her oldest friend, you can change course and reclaim your integrity. This, writer Aline Brosh McKenna and director Frankel make abundantly clear.
The Devil Wears Prada has a highly sophisticated script, inundated by Jewish jokes. It is also notable for its graphics — including everything about the body language of each character; its allusions (eg, to Northwestern’s first-rate school of journalism, to the brilliant social/political commentary of Joan Didion, to an aphorism of Gertrude Stein’s about Paris, to Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and to Rupert Murdoch’s indebtedness to Miranda Priestly); and the splendid performances of all the major and minor figures, especially Streep and Stanley Tucci (Andrea’s fashion guide, Nigel). One gorgeous touch is the anachronistic presence of the New York tabloid, The Daily Mirror (which went out of existence years ago), near Rockefeller Center and the posh building that sports Runaway.
One of my closest American Jewish friends, a writer, told me that the New York audience she was in roared with such laughter that at times it was impossible to hear the dialogue. I laughed that way, too — alone! The second time I saw the move, Aussies in the semi-empty theatre at a major shopping centre turned to look at me, wondering whether I’d lost my marbles.
I saw the film only at the end of its popular run, since local reviewers had so misled me about its focus that until then I vowed not to bother. Greater Union let me go back to have a second look at the ending, which confirmed my view about the seriousness of the commitment of Andrea and Nathan to each other. But then I decided to see it again so that I could write about it in a just way. Even 20 minutes showed me that I’d missed important things the first time round.
When The Devil Wears Prada comes out on DVD, out of sheer greed I will see it again.
Dr Susan Moore is a retired teacher educator who has published widely on literature, education, religion, and culture. She taught at the Sydney Institute of Education for 14 years and worked for the Institute of Public Affairs as a research fellow and as editor of Education Monitor. Raised in New Jersey, she has lived in Australia for 40 years.