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MOVIE REVIEW

'September Issue'

Documentary goes behind the scenes at Anna Wintour's empire at one of the world's top fashion mags.

September 11, 2009|Sheri Linden

"Girlie heaven!" actress Sienna Miller exclaims, stepping into the Times Square digs of Vogue for her stint as cover girl. "The September Issue," a slight, if often riveting, behind-the-scenes documentary, is equally awed by the office's racks of haute couture. But beyond the cutting-edge froufrou, the film is also a portrait of unapologetic girlie power: smart, talented, competitive women working hard at their jobs, beginning with the famously inscrutable and perfectly coiffed Anna Wintour, the magazine's editor in chief for 20 years.

Speaking almost exclusively to people within the upper tier of the Vogue fold, director R.J. Cutler has made a documentary of access, not revelation. Despite some entertaining sidelong glances at the big business of sartorial glamour, the film dares not disturb the altar of super-designers, supermodels and super-photographers at which Vogue and its devotees worship. Like the fictional "Pret-a-Porter" and "The Devil Wears Prada," Cutler's film offers scant insight into the politics and finances of the fashion industry. No theatrics worthy of Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly are on display either, but "September Issue" is not without its memorable moments.

In several brief but telling interview segments, Wintour -- whose frosty reputation the film clearly aims to thaw -- provides pieces of biography with a refreshing sense of pudeur, noting that her politically engaged siblings are "amused" by her career. Unless being a proponent of fur is something to be congratulated for, the specific accomplishments of that career are suggested rather than spelled out. From her corner office, Wintour sends employees back to the drawing board without ceremony and orchestrates major opportunities for young designers. She's a fascinating study in tight close-up, her gaze enigmatic, hyper-observant behind the signature shades.

At the heart of the film is the sometimes adversarial relationship between Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington, the only one on staff who dares contradict her, and the documentary's most compelling figure. With her flame-red hair, unadorned black garb and down-to-earth warmth, the uber-stylist is almost too schematic an opposite of her boss. Their mutual respect and dependence are a classic example of workplace dynamics transcending personality. You must "make yourself felt and make yourself necessary," Coddington notes with Zen-like clarity.

Much of what transpires is ordinary office stuff: ad-team pep talks, gripes about executive decisions. Bob Richman's astute camera work captures the maneuvers, not missing the ways Wintour and Coddington play to the lens.

Built around the making of the hefty fall-fashion bible in 2007, the film is already a chronicle of pre-recessionary nostalgia. The 4-pound magazine carried the most ads of any in Vogue's history; the 2009 installment marks a 40% drop from that peak. In "The September Issue," that Manolo has yet to drop.

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'The September Issue'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: In selected theaters

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