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Originally published Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'The September Issue' turns sharp focus to inner workings of Vogue

"The September Issue" is a sharply focused documentary on Vogue magazine and the world of fashion. A review by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The September Issue," a documentary by R.J. Cutler. 88 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

To read an interview with director R.J. Cutler, see seattletimes.com and search for "September Issue."

"There is something about fashion that makes people nervous," intones Vogue editor Anna Wintour, every perfectly coiffed hair in place. I don't know about that, but there's definitely something about Wintour that makes people nervous, and that's part of the appeal of R.J. Cutler's irresistible documentary "The September Issue." Scarily decisive and imperiously smart, the British-born Wintour rules the world of fashion. (Who else dares to instruct Prada to "reinterpret" some items?) Cutler's film follows her and her staff as they create the magazine's mammoth September 2007 issue.

While it's fun for fashionholics just to watch a movie in which people say "It's a famine of beauty!" and "The jacket is the new coat," the film becomes more substantial as it narrows its focus to two people: an artist and a curator. Grace Coddington, a red-haired former model who marches through Vogue's hallways like a decisive wraith, is the magazine's creative director; the imagination responsible for Vogue's often deliciously fanciful photo shoots. It's her job to soar and Wintour's to clip, and the interaction between the two women is fascinating.

For Coddington, each shoot is a work of art; we watch her fuss over the details of an exquisite 1920s-themed spread, with the soft, faded light of old photographs. Wintour, though appreciative (she calls Grace a "genius"), rejects Coddington's favorite shot, and we see a furious Coddington eating salad in her office and fuming. (You feel sorry for the salad.) A later clash results in Coddington firmly speaking the immortal line, "Please do not retouch Bob's stomach." This time, she wins; these two seem caught in a perpetual cycle of mutual respect and annoyance.

Andre Leon Talley flits through the film as comic relief, and Sienna Miller appears briefly as the issue's cover model, whose hair is "completely lackluster" and whose neck requires much retouching. But though the glimpse into Wintour is intriguing (her American grandmother used to send her Seventeen magazine — who knew?), it's Coddington and her artistry who steal the movie. At one point, she does an eye-roll so spectacular that it involves her entire head; a useful skill, it seems, at Vogue and elsewhere.

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