Pity the biopic. It's easy - perhaps even obligatory - to criticize a film for being a retread of the same old tired "boy gets fame, boy gets drugs, boy is heartwarmingly redeemed," but when a film breaks away from that, it turns out to be just as easy to complain that nothing happens.

The Notorious Bettie Page isn't as bland as all that, I suppose, but it's rather thin soup anyway. Partly this is the subject matter: in real-life, Bettie Page really did go from Southern girl to infamous bondage pin-up for little apparent cause, and her departure from that life really was a sudden choice made for religious reasons. I don't want to grouch that this raises the question of whether all famous people deserve biopics, but it does point out that it might be wise to have a stronger idea of "why."

I think if you asked director Mary Harron (who co-wrote with Guinevere Turner), she'd tell you that Page's life was a feminist text about a woman who suffered abuse and rape in her youth and turned to soft porn as a way of celebrating her sexuality and reclaiming her body on her own terms. That's meeting the film more than halfway, though. Sure, there are scenes in the opening part of the film that point this out as a possibility, but they're very lonely in their isolation, and never get referred to after they appear.

About midway through, the film tosses in the idea that Bettie poses because she thinks God meant for her to - an interesting idea that should have been picked up a little earlier (although the film subtly and successfully evokes her deep religiosity, so it doesn't come as a surprise). I could be happy with this if I thought the film really cared about it; but it's really hard to make Bettie Page a feminist icon, and while I think Harron knows this, she clung to the idea for too long.

Besides its thematic irrelevance, this is actually a pretty engaging and satisfying film. Gretchen Mol stars as Bettie, in one of those performances that justifies an actor's entire career. What Mol realizes that her director doesn't quite seem to is that the key to Bettie Page lies in her joy; looking at photos of Page, there is a sense of fun to all of her poses, even the ones where she's clearly trying to seem mean and dominating. It would be difficult to guess why this would be the case in reality, but in the film, it is obvious that Bettie knows she's good at posing, and because she is so comfortable with her body (indeed, nudity seems to be her ideal state), it's not scary or exploitive, but simply fun. Characters in the film editorialize to the effect of "when she's nude, she doesn't seem naked," and that's partially true; she's not exposed, but she is being completely open and honest - her natural and therefore most comfortable state is to be undressed. Mol completely gives herself over to this idea, and manages to recreate Page's exuberance perfectly.

Having slagged Harron for the script, I should give her some credit for the technical aspects of the film: it looks amazing. When Good Night, and Good Luck. was all the rage, I was at a bit of a loss to understand what everyone thought was so super-keen about the 50's style of the look, and now I know I was right: this film absolutely nails the look. Not just in its production design, which is great, but in the framing and lighting of shots. Indeed, the film captures the 1950's so well that when Harron switches between new footage and period newsreel stock, I could hardly tell the difference. Better still is the rare use of color (the film is almost entirely in black & white), which is consistently the oversaturated 16mm film we all vaguely recognize from vintage home movies. What this footage was shot on, I cannot say, but it looks exactly like the vacation postcard that it ultimately proves to be. Harron and her cinematographer Matt Hupfel (who has come from nowhere with this film) cannot be praised enough.

What's left to say? As I mentioned, the film doesn't really say anything; it's not anti-porn, nor is it pro-porn (indeed, the film is more than a little nostalgiac that once upon a time, these photos were even considered porn). It isn't really feminist. It's pro-Bettie, I suppose. A film celebrating nothing other, really, than one person who was happy doing something, and then decided to be happy in not doing it any longer. Which is fine with me.