The September Issue | Film review

An intriguing study of office politics at American Vogue. By Peter Bradshaw

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue these 20 years, fixes the camera with her formidable gaze: an event in itself, to see the shades removed. She speaks in an accent which tacks between the English home counties of her youth and the American east coast. "There's something about fashion which frightens some people," she says, turning up the beady severity, and for that instant, it is like Hannibal Lecter holding your gaze through the 18in thick glass and musing that there is something about a pale blue prison-issue jumpsuit that frightens some people. It's all about the wearer, surely?

Two years ago, documentary film-maker RJ Cutler was invited into the offices of American Vogue for a behind-the-scenes look at how an issue of the magazine is put together. Not just any issue either, but the September issue, traditionally the bulkiest one, the issue that heralds a new start for the coming year, and this would be the biggest ever – providing the only fashion context in which it is permissible to say out loud the words "fat" or "thick". And according to a mysterious, time-honoured glossy-magazine tradition, the September issue would have appeared three to four weeks in advance, at the beginning of August, so that all its autumnal concepts would hit the newsstands at the roasting height of summer.

Like an ashtray marked "RMS Titanic" recovered from the icy waters of the Atlantic, the September 2007 issue of American Vogue may yet achieve a fetish status. It marks the very end of the economic boom, a luxury item filled with photos of stuff well-off people don't need and crammed to the very brim with – oh, just imagine it, my fellow media professionals! – lucrative advertising. The reality may look a little muted after the wacky fictional treatments in The Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty. But it's an intriguing study of office politics, and we do get to see a flash of that famous froideur. A lowly assistant is sharply told "excuse me", as the editor wishes to get past her to look at a photo spread. The poor young woman looks as if Wintour has struck her across the face with a riding crop.

It was perhaps only in the midst of shooting that Cutler discovered his story: not Wintour, but Wintour's relationship with a fellow British-born player, Grace Coddington, the magazine's creative director, cheerful, open and approachable where Wintour is withdrawn and controlling. Lovers are like servants, they say, or like subordinate magazine executives.

If you want to keep them, you must treat them badly, and Wintour treats Coddington pretty badly sometimes, humiliatingly rejecting her ideas and remaining far more interested in her celebrity-led lead feature: Sienna Miller cavorting about Rome in various high-concept poses, photographed by Mario Testino.

Miller's hair is adjudged to be too wispy and lifeless and she has to wear a wig. I wondered if this might be the moment for Cutler to ask Wintour about the maintenance of her own distinctive bob. But that topic is left tactfully unbroached, along with real fur, size zero and other potentially disrespectful subjects. This entertaining movie has no interest in digging deep. Maybe digging deep in a world of gorgeous surfaces is beside the point.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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