Lifetime, you had me at "Gina Gershon as Donatella Versace."
Prior to checking out this fluffy 2013 made-for-television biopic, I vaguely knew of Ms. Versace as the brusque, scary looking leather-skinned woman who took over the Versace fashion brand after the shooting death of her designer brother, Gianni. According to House of Versace, the pressure for Donatella to continue the Versace brand's success caused her to slip into drug addiction, alienating her family and longtime colleagues.
In other words, this is exactly what you'd expect from a Lifetime movie based on a real-life famous personality. The dialogue is as hokey as ever, the plot holds zero surprises, yet astonishingly Gina Gershon actually tones it down - managing to make Donatella a multi-layered human being. I'm not saying it's an Emmy-winning turn or anything, but the depth of her portrayal is one of several unexpected things about this movie.
House of Versace kicks off in the early '90s, when the Versace brand was at its height doing audacious, sexy couture for rock stars and royalty. It's a look fiercely defended by Gershon's chain-smoking, blunt-speaking Donatella ("We dress mistresses, and mistresses only wear stilettoes!"), who not-so-contentedly styles the women modeling her brother's designs while Gianni (Enrico Colantoni) basks in the spotlight. With the Versaces, family is important - the business side of things is sensibly run by a third sibling, Santo (Colm Feore). Donatella's restlessness threatens the family dynamic, however, placing a special burden on her husband (Alex Carter) and Allegra (Madison McAleer), the pre-teen daughter who is doted upon by her Uncle Gianni.
In its middle third, House of Versace dutifully replays the weirdness of 1997, from Donatella's vantage point - Gianni's shooting death and the subsequent manhunt for his serial killer assailant (who barely registers as a character in this movie), followed by the sudden death of Versace's friend Princess Diana (somehow, they left out The Onion's reactionary headline: Elton John Wows Mother Theresa Funeral Crowd With 'The Bitch Is Back'). Gianni's death naturally comes as a shock to the remaining Versaces - all the more so when it's revealed that he left much of his fortune in a trust fund for his neice, Allegra. Despite the setbacks, Donatella steps in and crafts a ready-to-wear line using her own experience toiling away on the sidelines. But is she happy? Perhaps, in between the coke binges and selfish tantrums. Flashing forward to the year 2004, House becomes a conventional Tale Of Redemption with Donatella going through a detox program and making amends with the college-aged Allegra (Samantha Hodhod).
With a cheap-o budget that substitutes Canada for Italy and fashions seemingly wrangled from the local mall, House of Versace has the feel of a shoddy designer knockoff. The characters are fairly interesting, however, and Gershon's force of will as Donatella almost makes it worthwhile. You might expect the Showgirls star to turn in a campy, over-the-top performance, yet in actuality her work is somewhat muted and even at times affecting. Gershon doesn't physically resemble the real Donatella (for one, the actor's "Coppertone Girl" skin tone needs to be a more robust "Louis Vuitton Handbag" shade) - yet she goes the exta mile to make her both larger-than-life and sympathetic. I enjoyed the sibling interplay between Gershon, Colantoni, and Feore. As a bonus, Raquel Welch and her immobile face lends a fair amount of motherly gravitas as Donatella's Aunt Lucia.
House of Versace's 1.78:1 widescreen image is presented in a solid DVD mastering job which brings out the detail and surface textures in the photography. Color is a little more muted and golden-tone than what you'd expect. Although it pretty much looks like every other made-for-cable feature, light and dark levels are keyed in satisfactorily.
Although the DVD box lists an English 2.0 Dolby Digital as the only audio option, the actual disc offers a choice between that and a default 5.0 Surround mix. The track is a pleasant, spacious sounding mix with clear dialogue in the central channel and sound effects mixed in around the edges. Whenever used, music is kept at a complementary and not too jarring level. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.
No behind-the-scene dirt on the production? Che schifo. Trailers for this and other Lionsgate releases, which auto-play upon disc insertion, count as this release's sole bonus content.
Not nearly as campy as you might believe, House of Versace nevertheless emerges as juicy good viewing with a few surprises. Although the script follows a predictable "woman becomes a hot mess; redeems herself" story arch, Gina Gershon's performance as fashionista Donatella Versace is amazing. Too ephemeral to be a keeper; worth a peek for Gershon fans. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.